Illustrations by James Graham
Across the membership of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), just 13 percent of the institutions have a woman as the chief executive officer. In comparison, nearly a third of all college and university presidents this year are women, according to the American Council on Education. That leaves women leaders in theological schools in an often-lonely spot.
In Trust spoke off the record with several current and former women leaders of theological schools about the challenges they faced in their work and advice they had for others.
1) Theology is as important in the boardroom as it is in the classroom.
“It has to be said: For women who become presidents of seminaries in a more conservative context, one of the key challenges is dealing with interpretations of scripture that restrict women’s roles,” said one recently retired female CEO. “The theology of an institution is everything.”
Other interviewees agreed. “Complementarian theology – the idea that men and women have separate but equal roles in various contexts, including the Church – is going to be a fundamental barrier to a woman being in a leadership role,” said another former seminary leader. “Part of the problem occurs when a school determines that its leadership structure is open to women, but individual members of the faculty and board personally hold complementarian beliefs. I don’t know how you can hold to that kind of theology and not have it spill out into the rest of the institution.”
2) Just because a school decides it’s ready to welcome a woman president doesn’t mean it actually is.
“The desire to hire a woman is not sufficient to ensure a successful transition,” said one seminary leader. Schools may want to hire a particular female candidate because they believe she’s in line for the role or that she’s the best fit. There may be any number of other reasons, including a preference for having a woman in leadership. Still, the search committee and the leadership team need to honestly consider the personal and cultural readiness of the candidate, the leadership team, and the board for a female leader. Additionally, this leader recommends that at least 30 percent of the board and faculty be women. Less than that means that a new female CEO is “less likely to show up as her full self.”
3) The most well-qualified president can fail if the school is not a good fit.
Even if an institution is ready to hire a female CEO, a woman with extensive leadership skills, experience, and impeccable academic credentials can be derailed by issues of cultural and institutional fit. Differences in denomination, region, or the assumption that seminary presidents traditionally come from congregational or denominational leadership can cause trouble for a president. Even embedment in a university can be a challenge for female leaders – partly because women tend to have a more relational leadership style, and embedded schools can be part of a less flexible hierarchical structure in which the dean has less direct contact with the board and must navigate a larger corporate structure. “Often these issues of fit are not addressed directly,” said one leader. “But it is wise for candidates and hiring committees both to understand an institution’s culture and theological foundation and context.”
One leader recommends that at least 30 percent of the board and faculty be women. Less than that, a new FEMALE CEO is “less likely to show up as her full self.”
4) She may have the title, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to execute presidential authority.
Members of a leadership team who have a long history together need to recognize their informal channels for communication – the side conversations and social get-togethers where business might not be the primary topic. For a new female president, these types of channels pose a particular threat to her authority. One former leader said her institution valued the optics of having a woman in her role but she realized discussions and decisions were happening outside of the formal settings where she was present. “At the end of the day,” she said, “I had zero support when it came to the strategic direction and decisions that were happening.”
Per one former CEO: “If you put a woman in a position of leadership but you don’t really give her a chance, if you don’t value and honor the skills and experiences that she brings to the institution, then you are setting up both the organization and the woman to fail. It’s not good. It shouldn’t be done.”
5) A board can do a few simple things to recruit and smooth the way.
The search, hiring, and onboarding would seem to be obvious times for the board to actively prepare for a woman as chief executive, but not every school does. One former seminary leader mentioned that her school did not actively recruit women for executive roles. Another suggested that board members share information about leadership openings with women’s professional groups and female presidents at other seminaries to identify those who would be a good fit. “It’s a fabulous strategy because it combats imposter syndrome,” said a former CEO. “If a woman president calls you and says, ‘I want you to be aware of this opening; I think you’d be good at it’ –something powerful happens. It’s the power of a nomination. Someone you respect says, ‘You can do this.’”
It’s important for the board and the nominating committee to be clear that they are looking to hire the most qualified candidate who is the best fit. “That person may turn out to be a woman,” one retired CEO said. “But you never want to create the impression that you’re out to get a woman specifically.”
Once the new president has been hired, the board can help to ease her way. Contact other female CEOs and arrange a meeting, or hire an executive coach to help her navigate the job. “A board member might want to fund that personally,” the same retired CEO said. “My seminary was very stressed financially, so I didn’t ask for much. But if a wealthier member of the board had just said, ‘Hey, I’m going to pay for a coach,’ that would have been really nice.”
Even after a new female president has settled into her job and things seem to be going smoothly, the board needs to remain vigilant. “I think a lot of times misogynistic qualities manifest in ways that only become apparent over time,” said a former seminary leader. “So board members shouldn’t just make it through the hiring phase and think that they’re in the clear.
6) Gendered leadership norms are real – and women often struggle because of them.
One retired CEO remembers when she made the effort to listen to seminary community members and respond to their concerns, she got feedback that she appeared weak. Other times, when she took decisive action, she heard that people found her domineering. This matches a pattern that women in leadership often face: the “double-bind dilemma,” when people judge women leaders as either too soft or too harsh based on gender stereotypes.
Another former seminary leader said, “In my experience, men tended to fail up, while women were pushed out.” During her career, she said she saw how gender seemed to influence disciplinary situations: men in mid- or high-level seminary leadership positions who had acted improperly were allowed to transition into a different role – often as a promotion – while women leaders, especially strong, vocal women leaders, got pushed out if they so much as disagreed with certain stakeholders.
Sometimes certain gender norms have a surprisingly outsized impact. At institutions that have had a long line of male CEOs, for instance, there may be an unspoken tradition that the president’s wife writes thank you notes, extends social invitations, hosts gatherings at the president’s residence, and the like.
One former CEO remembers pointed and invaluable advice she received during her first few months in office.
“My board chair, a woman executive herself, said to me very directly, ‘Always hire a caterer instead of doing any cooking for seminary functions in the president’s residence.’”
7) For the future success of theological education, it’s vital that men care about women in leadership.
Male board members and team members need to provide “intentional support,” one person said. “We describe this as ‘allyship,’ and space-making behavior.” Men can help make that organization more hospitable for men and women alike.
“We can revisit the theological model of the image of God,” said one leader. “Male and female both bring important perspectives that together represent what God wants to do, how God wants to work. It was always meant to be a joint project.”
8) Nothing is more important than open, honest communication with the right people. (Online bonus tip.)
Tips like the this seem almost trivial, but it’s in sharing them that they have an impact. That’s one aspect of communication. A second aspect that’s vital for a new president is having regular, confidential conversations with the board chair. One leader suggests that the board chair initiate a weekly conversation with the new president; once her presidency is comfortably underway, that can shift to a monthly conversation. Sometimes those meetings happen over a meal, but, she said, “If the board chair is male and you sense some awkwardness, you can suggest a phone call, or you can meet in the office instead. Those are acceptable ways to put people at ease and build relationships.” The board chair should provide feedback to the president about how she is coming across to others. Additionally, the chair should offer practical advice, like how the president can best to report to the board. Finally, frequent meetings early in a new president’s term allow the board chair to get a sense of how she’s doing, build a working partnership with her, and spread the word of her early successes to the board and other stakeholders.
The other key conversation partner for new presidents is the chief academic officer. It’s essential for these two officers, to determine appropriate boundaries and tasks for each of them. Without doing so, one retired CEO said, a president can easily be sabotaged.
Finally, when it comes to gender discrimination, even if you simply think you see something problematic or unfair, you should say something to someone. “It can be difficult to identify gender-based discrimination because it’s often enmeshed with other systematic problems in an institution,” said one former seminary leader. “But if it’s clear to somebody that gender discrimination may be affecting the president — or any other member of the community — it needs to be brought forward in an appropriate way within the institution.” Board members can start by raising their concerns to the board chair, and faculty members should talk to the dean. “Don’t think it’s just going to go away on its own,” she said, “and don’t think it should be handled quietly.”