Christian Conferences and Invisible Women

First there was the recent furore in America about the low proportion of women speakers in Christian Conferences, helpfully summarised by Jonathan Merritt. Then prominent tweeter @God_Loves_Women together with @boudledidge and @Helen_a13 analysed how many of the UK’s conference speakers were women, and I reproduce her findings below (with her permission). The results were quite shocking.

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Are UK conferences sexist?
There were perhaps 2 or 3 conferences that I know or suspect have some kind of complementarian theological framework that influences the low numbers, because they believe that women should not preach or teach men. But what was most surprising to me was that the vast majority of conferences are, on paper, ‘egalitarian’ in theology, (which is to say they believe women and men are equally called to serve God’s people in leading churches and teaching the Bible). In practice, they have twice as many male speakers as women.

Are UK Christian conferences sexist? The figures speak for themselves. Men were favoured as speakers in UK conferences by a ratio of approximately 2:1.

Does the Bible support positive discrimination?

We have an example of positive discrimination in Acts 6. One section of the church was being neglected: the Hellenistic Jews. The Greek-speaking widows were being overlooked in the distribution of food in favour of the Hebraic widows. Seeing that this was wrong, the apostles appointed deacons to ensure that the food would be distributed fairly.They appointed seven deacons – and they all had Greek names.
What was the result? “The word of God spread.” (v7) It fostered unity and furthered the gospel. If a section of the church has been overlooked, it is good to appoint people from that section into leadership.
We need to try extra hard to appoint into leadership those whom society devalues – including women, ethnic minorities, elderly people, disabled people – not because of any worldly political correctness, but because of the Bible, and the character of God. God loves the widow and orphan and foreigner. He is a God of the oppressed minority.
Preacher Philip Brooks once defined preaching as ‘truth through personality’. Hearing someone from another country preach the Bible is one of the best ways to reveal our cultural blindspots. We need women’s voices: the voice of half the church. We need to hear the diamond of the gospel mediated through a myriad different voices and perspectives, so that the full spectrum of light can be seen.

The problem of celebrity culture and invisible women
I have been the woman, looking down the roster of men who’ve been asked to speak, and wondering why I wasn’t. I have been the woman tagged onto a seminar as a ‘token woman’, alongside a man who people will assume is the main speaker, just so that they can tick the egalitarian theology box. I’ve also been the woman who has planned a workshop, with a ‘token man’ who feels like a patronised spare part because he is there to reassure those who would worry that I was speaking without a ‘head’, so that they can tick the complementarian box. Tokenism is always devaluing. I have been that woman.
But to be fair to these conferences, I have also been that organiser, desperate to find good female speakers, only to discover that the ones that I had so carefully ferreted out had withdrawn from ministry, either temporarily or permanently, because of childcare commitments, or being unable to find a full-time ministry job so returning to the secular workplace, or going overseas to serve as a cross-cultural missionary. So many women serve voluntarily after their training in ministry, that it is often hard to track them down.

The reason there are few women being asked to speak in conferences is not because there aren’t enough gifted women, nor always because a conference is being sexist. It is simply that the women are invisible.

One of the problems of big conferences is that they are prey to our unhealthy celebrity culture, an ugly, unfortunate trait that has crept into the church via Hollywood. We are the consumer. We only want to go to the conferences (and the churches) that have the famous speakers. We will only buy a book if it is an author we have heard of.

We want Big Names, at Big Churches, doing Big Things for God. And most of the Big Names are men, partly because there are more men running churches than women, and partly because we live in a patriarchal society that values men more than women. The cycle becomes self-perpetuating: we don’t want to hear women speak in conferences because they aren’t famous; and they aren’t famous because nobody hears them speak.


It takes some boldness for a conference to invite people they know will preach God’s word faithfully and prophetically, even if they aren’t already well-known in our Christian circles.
It takes some boldness for participants to sign up and pay money for a conference because they trust the organisers, and trust that God will feed them by His word and Spirit, rather than signing up to hear a particular Big Name.
If we are to break the cycle of patriarchy in conferences, we probably need also to break the cycle of celebrity culture.


What’s the solution?
A national list of female speakers. We need to make the women more visible. As a result of a discussion on these matters on Twitter, @God_loves_women is hoping to collate a list of female speakers. Anyone who knows a good female speaker in the UK can list their name (put their own name forward) below, and I will ensure those names get on the list when it’s done.
Quotas. Jenny Baker tells me that when Clive Calver was leading Spring Harvest he instituted a quota of at least one female speaker for every seminar team of three, which at the time was a radical improvement. Quotas ensure that we go searching for the gifted women, and we perhaps hunt harder for people who aren’t celebrities, but are equally gifted. Jenny Baker’s article on why quotas are helpful in changing a conference culture is a persuasive one.
Conference organisers (and participants) committing themselves to hearing different voices, rather than Big Names.

For me, this whole discussion has been a wake-up call, and one that I hope the church will take note of. Sexism is still a problem in our world, and in our churches. This is why I join with Sarah Bessey in calling myself a feminist as well as egalitarian, because by it I am saying that things are not yet as they should be. The aim is not matriarchy, but partnership and mutual service.

Having more female speakers at our national conferences will not solve the whole problem, but it is a good start.

Some questions for reflection:
Church leaders/conference organisers:

  • Are we committed to seeking out female leaders, training them up, investing time in them, affirming them equally?
  • How do we choose people in our teams or conferences – by their reputation and popularity, or by their giftedness?
  • What is the value of quotas?
    The rest of us:

  • Which kinds of people do we listen to or read?
  • Are they all PLU’s (People Like Us)?
  • Do we take time to seek out the preaching of the gospel from other wings of the church, from other countries, ages, class, gender etc?

    Over to you:

  • Which female Christian speakers have you heard and learnt from? (Hopefully we can compile a national database).
  • How balanced is your diet of speakers/authors/bloggers? Can you think of a time when you consciously listened to or read someone who wasn’t a PLU (People Like Us) – what did you learn?

    For further reading:
    God Loves Women – Are UK Christian Conferences sexist?
    Jenny Baker – Where are the Women?
    Jenny Baker – Thoughts on Quotas
    Martin Saunders – On the Youthwork Summit and Female Speakers
    Steve Holmes – Hate something, change something
    And the best analysis from across the pond:
    Rachel Held Evans – On being ‘Divisive’
    Sarah Bessey – In which I am still hopeful

    STOPPRESS UPDATE: I am happy to report, that following this post, tweeter God_Loves_Women is going to coordinate a national UK database. Initial plans can be found on her blog here. Email her at to be added to the mailing list and receive further details later. Please spread the word!

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      […] Marlow has an extensive analysis of this phenomenon in the United Kingdom, where across major Christian conferences, men outnumber women 2:1. […]

    2. 101 Christian Women Speakers to Discover in New Zealand | Sacraparental - 12th December, 2013

      […] Marlow has an extensive analysis of this phenomenon in the United Kingdom, where across major Christian conferences, men outnumber women 2:1. […]

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