Lizzie Hutchison lifts the lid on what so many of us are dealing with in the workplace as well as the Church

If I asked you to name a modern, forward-thinking institution, where being a woman is not problematic at all, chances are, the Church would not be top of your list. Tensions are inevitable in an environment where historically – and sometimes even today – women are not allowed to be entirely part of the structure. Despite this, we have a gender imbalance in the UK Church, (the latest Tearfund report shows 65 per cent women to 35 per cent men). 

The Single Friendly Church (singlefriendlychurch.com) explains that this leads to competition for men, creating difficult female friendships, with the added bonus of single women being perceived as threatening to married couples. By contrast, operating as a Christian woman outside of a church context – in an era of #metoo, gender pay gap interrogation, and more waves of feminism than I’ve had pedicures – surely that would be a breeze…right? 

Well, not so much. Over 8.2 million UK employees report that they’ve been discriminated against on the grounds of their gender when it comes to the workplace. And over 35 per cent have experienced some form of sexism in the last two years. Yeah that’s right. The last two years. I thought by now we were all woke vegans with baggy jeans, recyclable cups and enlightened views on the patriarchy (cheers, Barbie)? Apparently not. 

There are two kinds of sexism in the workplace. Structural, and subtle. Examples of the former are ingrained inequalities like parental leave, asking women in interviews if they plan on having children and excluding them from male leisure networking opportunities. Then there are the microaggressions that accumulate over time to suppress women. Talking over us in meetings, calling us ‘girls’ or ‘girlies’, or commenting on what we’re wearing. Delightful. 

Fighting off imposter syndrome

Today, I am the only woman in our creative department (admittedly it’s a small agency). My theory for this is not that women are any worse at coming up with ideas, but men are better at backing themselves. To sell an idea you need to convince clients that that weird thing you thought of is actually rather marvellous. That it’s going to transform their brand, change the world and please could you give us half a million quid to make it happen? Research suggests that men are far more comfortable with self-promotion, and I’ve seen it in action. When male teams present work, they sound far more confident. There seems to be an inherent level of self-belief that comes with being male. And honestly, it can be intimidating. 

Although both sexes suffer from imposter syndrome, statistically women are more likely to. Great! Couple that with any emotional baggage that comes from the Church – historically or otherwise – and you’re setting off on the back foot. It’s certainly a challenge to be a Christian woman in this environment. How do you present work with humility, while fending off internal threats? I have to actively trust the Lord with my career path and refuse to let my colleagues’ confidence discourage me. Thankfully, he is bigger than all of them. 

Why comment on my appearance? 

I asked several Christian women from different career backgrounds if they had experienced any sexism at work and, depressingly, the stories came in thick and fast. Katy*, who used to work as a researcher, was told by a male colleague who had been going for the same role, that she had “only got the job because she was pretty”. Later, another male colleague commented to her that she “might want to look a bit more like a researcher.” Which means, what exactly? Katy felt she had to work extra hard to be taken seriously in her job and noted that both these comments came from Christian men. Let’s hope Jesus wasn’t watching. (Oh, wait.)  

Women are far more likely to get comments about what they wear at work. We have more options, and they invoke just as much feedback. In Saffi’s first job at a theatre group, she was told before any function to “do her face” and “wear something nice”, as if the business depended on it. I once wore a long, leopard-print dress for a client pitch and was told by my then creative director that I looked “too glamorous to be pitching for a charity”. What sounds like a backhanded compliment made me feel like a teenager being told that they “weren’t going out looking like that” just before I presented my idea to a roomful of prospective clients. I noticed that he didn’t comment on any of my male colleagues’ apparel. As with Saffi, these comments came from a much older, more senior man exploiting the power imbalance. 

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Side-lined and intimidated

Olivia works for a national youth charity and told that there is a definite ‘boys club’, with tactical cricket trips ensuring certain people get promoted. I mean, no pay rise is worth watching 22 men knock a ball about for days on end, but it would be nice to be offered the chance. 

Katy*, who used to work as a researcher, was told by a [Christian] male colleague who had been going for the same role, that she had “only got the job because she was pretty”.

One of my brainiest pals, Amy, is an actuary (essentially an accountant on steroids) and once she was on the train back from a client meeting when someone of executive level suggested a threesome with her and a colleague. She laughed it off in the moment but felt intimidated and cheapened by the experience. This man has subsequently been fired for sexual misconduct, so it wasn’t an empty threat. But how many of these types of comments do we all laugh off, for fear of being seen as someone who can’t take a joke, and therefore limiting our career trajectory? No one wants to be captain buzzkill, so how do we respond? When we’re caught between rage and humiliation, where does faith come into play?

The sexism response suggester 

It strikes me that Jesus wasn’t concerned with taking on the big power structures of the day with grand, aggressive gestures, but by changing individual people’s lives with personal interactions. Healing women trapped in prostitution, speaking to those on the margins, and involving the underdogs in his ministry right from the very beginning Jesus was also great at calling out poor behaviour. He was gracious but also firmly held to truth and justice. So, in the spirit of our favourite Nazarene, here are a few suggestions if sexism sneaks into your day:

Scenario 1:

Steve the CEO talks over your female colleague in a meeting. 

The wrong approach: Awkward silence. Nervous cough. Steve carries on talking.

The right approach: “Sorry Steve, I think Lizzie was midway through her point.”

Scenario 2:

Geoff from Payroll comments sleazily on your female colleague’s clothes.  

The wrong approach: “Bahahha Geoff you legend!!! OI OI!! LIZZIE’S GOT HER LEGS OUT FOR THE LADS.”

The right approach: “Sorry, what did you say Geoff?!”

Scenario 3:

You notice your female colleague isn’t invited to a boy’s trip. 

The wrong approach: Women don’t like sports anyway, right?

The right approach: Go to the organiser and say: “Do you reckon we should have more inclusive activities?

Scenario 4:

Your male friend at church begins a monologue about male headship and women being the ‘weaker sex’.

The wrong approach:  Pray: “Lord, deliver Colin from this demon of misogyny and free him from the shackles of sexism”, then drown Colin in holy water.

The right approach: “Colin, I’d love to chat to you more about this – why don’t we discuss the topic over our next small group? We could bring some resources to share too?”

Calling sexism out, little by little

The larger the sexist act, the less dangerous it is. Why? because it’s so obvious that it can be called out clearly, and the appropriate action taken. It’s the microaggressions that do more damage. They’re harder to identify. Harder to refute. But over time these little comments push down women and ingrain inequality. Let’s encourage our Christian brothers to jump in and call these out on our behalf. Too often men stay silent, in spite of their own discomfort at sexist comments. Perhaps that sounds anti-empowered, and, by all means fire out a zinger in the moment, but if your mind goes blank with shock, then it’s nice to have someone back you up. 

We might not all be the revolutionary type but if those qualified could publish reports, change laws and tackle MPs, the rest of us can do our best to call out sexism when we see it. Keep an eye out and have a few polite but firm phrases up your sleeve. When I did a stand-up comedy course, the advice for hecklers was to simply ask them to repeat what they said. Nine times out of ten they’d get embarrassed and say nothing. I would suggest a similar approach at church or work. Because the second time around, it’s not quite as funny. 

*All names have been changed. 

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Lizzie Hutchison is an advertising copywriter who loves Jesus.