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We don’t have a problem with women in leadership! …do we?

Gender-inequity in Youth with a Mission (YWAM)? No, we don’t have this problem! We do have women in leadership roles! Of course we do! I mean, if our founder even wrote a book with the title Why Not Women?, then there cannot be a problem! …or can it? 

But let’s be honest. Are we daring to really look into the topic of gender-inequity in YWAM? Looking at some numbers, somehow, we do have a certain gender imbalance: usually we do have more female students than male students. On staff levels, it usually almost evens out and department / school leaders are mostly a good mix of men and women. Then let’s look at the campus leadership level: what is the ratio in your ministry location? How many female and how many male main base leaders do you have? How about national conveners? Or the Area Circle Teams? And along these lines, if you are leading a school: how many female guest speakers do you invite? (Are you even thinking about the gender of the guest speaker?)

Let me guess: you do have less women in main / senior leading positions or as main speakers in conferences. Right? Somehow, we lost some women on the way on this leadership ladder! We say in YWAM that we clearly welcome women! What happened? As I reflected on this topic, I wondered if there is a problem in our leadership development! Do women develop their leadership abilities maybe in a different way than men do? So, maybe our leadership development is “too male”? Could it be that there is something missing in how we develop female leaders? These questions stuck with me so that I actually turned it into an academic research for my master degree. (It is fun when you can research about YWAM for a non-YWAM university.) 

Before, I dive now into the findings of my research let me first clarify: looking back on my own leadership journey in YWAM, yes there were several times where I was the only woman in a big leadership team, but I never felt personally discriminated because I am a woman. And I am not writing this out of a personal hurt or frustration. I am writing this because I see there is room for improvement in our leadership development. Let’s be aware of this and see how we can enhance our leadership development for men and women! 

So here some of my findings from my research: 

I interviewed five men and five women who are in senior leadership positions in YWAM in Europe. I asked about elements that were relevant in their leadership development and if their gender ever played a role in it. I expected that women would maybe point at different developmental elements than men. Would maybe women need more the relational approach of mentorship and men maybe more the challenge for new opportunity? 

To my surprise, all men and women shared about the same key factors in their leadership growth. Out of the interviews, I was able to generate three interconnected themes: 

  1. Personal development 
    1. Knowledge and skills (“Stay a learner”)
    1. Inner personality work (“Grow more holistically!”)
  2. Platform for Growth
    1. Continuous, natural growth (“Learning-by-doing”)
    1. Specific steps for growth (“Opportunities to step out”)
  3. Building Resilience
    1. Awareness of Purpose and Meaning (“You need an inner drive”)
    1. Relational support network (“Find a resource team”)

So if women and men have the same developmental themes, then all should be fine, shouldn’t it? Going deeper into the interviews, quickly I came across the topic of “Exclusion”. In some cases, it was an “Active Exclusion”, which was sometimes connected to the cultural or church context. One woman worded it this way: “Being a female does mean you do have to do more because it is so patriarchal.” And even a male interviewee confirmed: “Being a man helps with dealing with officials. There is a different level of respect.” 

But also within YWAM women experienced exclusion. The interviewees stressed the importance of ‘Learning from role models’. Yet, the women described experiences where access to such role models was restricted. The women encountered situations where male senior leaders refused to be alone with a single woman in an office: “If I have an appointment with him, I cannot just go to his office and shut the door to meet there.” Neither was it acceptable to be seen together in public. “If they are high profile, there were men who didn’t want to be seen with me alone in public.” A woman experienced situations where a senior leader only brought young male leaders with him to conferences. “I saw how my male friends had those opportunities, which I would never be able to have.” Interestingly, the men confirmed this openly. The protection of their reputation and integrity was seen as a reason for these decisions. “To respect gender and set boundaries … I try everything that there would not even be a reason for a rumor or scandal.” Or “I would not take on a close mentoring or coaching relationship with a woman … being aware of possible pitfalls down the line.”

In other situations, the female participants experienced what I defined as “Passive Exclusion”. The women shared how sometimes out of a practical context, female leaders were discursively neglected. Some leadership circles were very male dominated. “You can go to a YWAM leadership meeting, and it is typically middle-aged white men.” Certain settings were unintentionally organized in a gender-specific way. “Men stay in one building and women in another. So, I cannot hang out with the guys in the evening.” Male school leaders often only invited male speakers. “The course leader was male, and he did not realize that he had only invited male speakers during the whole school.” The female participants strongly felt that they were missing out on opportunities, also in less official settings, which were seen as crucial. “Then the guys go play golf or tennis, and I don’t play golf or tennis. But I know the best conversations happen there.”

As part of the third theme about resilience, the women shared how they had to learn to cope with such active or passive exclusion. I was impressed about the women as they shared how they dealt with such frustration in a positive way. For example, one interviewee said: “I try to keep my heart soft about this. If I would become bitter or angry, that would be a huge stumbling block that would cripple myself.” Inner confidence was seen as essential to persist as a female leader. “I just don’t take it personally.” Or “You need to be secure in yourself and not take anything in because you could get hurt constantly.”

Sometimes, the female leaders had to take proactive steps to actively include themselves. It was an attitude of persistence, to gain inclusion. “I could decide to either get hurt, overlooked, and ignored; or to say, these guys are losing out and I decided to push myself forward a little bit.” A female participant shared about a setting that was male dominated, where after a meeting everyone was watching a rugby match. She intentionally decided to join and chime in even though she was not interested in rugby. “Whenever I can, I try to immerse myself into their world. And it seems silly, it is just a rugby match, but you cannot underestimate the connection you make with them in that setting. It will influence your next meeting.”

So, what are we now doing with these observations? 

Maybe you are reading this as a woman and situations came to your mind where you experienced similar things. Well, my encouragement to you: don’t get bitter about it. Include yourself actively. Join watching the soccer game with the guys even if you really don’t care about soccer. And start mentoring other younger women into their roles. The younger female staff around you will need your encouragement and mentorship. 

Or maybe you are reading this as a man. Are you aware about such passive or active exclusions of female leaders around you? The lack of awareness has been identified as one reason for exclusion of women in leadership. Maybe you are still not sure if this is really true, then keep your eyes open about it and take a minute now: are you equally mentoring female and male younger leaders? If you don’t mentor female leaders out of integrity reasons, how could this be solved? If you are leading a school or seminar, did you check if there is a mix of female and male guest speakers? Is there maybe a female young leader around you, maybe she needs a new opportunity and extra encouragement to step up!

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