THE BLOG
11/20/2014 05:41 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2015

Another Survey Tells Us What We Already Know: Women, Especially Women Of Color, Are Not Selected to Lead Religious Organizations

It is not jaw-dropping news that women continue to be underrepresented in positions of leadership in most arenas in America.

In 1997, Rosabeth Kanter highlighted this situation in her book about men and women in corporate America (Kanter 1977, 1997). More than 10 years later, The White House Project published The White House Project Report: Benchmarking Women's Leadership which showed women continued to be underrepresented (2009). Two years after that, the University of Denver Colorado Women's College teamed up with The White House Project to produce a follow up study, Benchmarking Women's Leadership, which indicated not much had changed (2013).

While women made up nearly 75 percent of the nonprofit workforce, they held 45 percent of CEO positions. When large organizations with budgets over $50 million were considered the percentage of women at the highest level of leadership plummeted to 16 percent. As nonprofit budgets significantly increased, female presence on these boards significantly decreased. In fact, organizations with budgets under $200,000 had the largest number of women in top positions (63.7 percent), and those with budgets below $1 million had the second largest number (50 percent).

What researchers of both studies failed to show was the true status of women of color. Statistics for women of color CEO's were not even present. The Colorado Women's College study did note the number of women of color on boards of Fortune 500 companies, which was a mere 3 percent compared to 13.1 percent for their white female counterparts. The number of women of color on nonprofit boards was 4.5 percent, compared to 43 percent for white women.

Now, sadly to say, yet another study confirms what we already know: women are not selected to lead religious organizations. Especially, women of color.

The Women In Leadership National Study (WILNS) shows women leaders lag behind their male peers in evangelical nonprofits. In the first phase of this 3-part study, researchers surveyed 1,481 evangelical institutions and found that women held 21 percent of board positions, 19 percent of top-paid posts and 16 percent of CEO positions. In the second phase, they highlighted a not-so-surprising disconnect between the theology and praxis of the women and men surveyed: (1) 94 percent thought leadership should be shared among genders; (2) the majority identified themselves as egalitarian in their attitudes toward gender; (3) and both men and women were more likely to see themselves and their organizations as theologically progressive when it came to women's leadership in church and society.

What WILNS does not make plain and leaves buried in the data is how dire the situation is for women of color. Barely 1 percent of top leadership posts in institutions included in this study are held by women of color. Comparing them to their ethnic male counterparts, the study states Black women constitute 27 percent of the total number of Black board members. A more telling comparison is between the number of women of color and the total number of all persons in top leadership positions.

Black, Asian and Latina women combined barely make up 1 percent of the total number of persons in top positions. White women comprise 14 percent. Also skewed is the number of women of color on nonprofit boards. Again, while white women constitute a mere 10 percent of nonprofit board members, Black women are less than 1 percent, Latina women 0.1 percent and Asian women 0.2 percent.

In academic institutions the story is the same. While gender bias continues to limit upward mobility for all women, women of color continue to face stereotypes that define leadership as contrary to both their gender and their ethnicity.

So where we do go from here? How do we resolve the inequity revealed in these surveys?

As a progressive evangelical womanist theologian and scholar, and a Black woman who has held top positions in nonprofits and the church, I know first-hand what it is like to navigate through concurrent sexist, ethnic and racially biased workplaces. From encountering displays of tepid awareness of the intersection of gendered and racist bias to a seeming lack of concern and outright dismissal, I have dealt with the deafening silence around our underrepresentation due to this complex equation and white privilege. While research studies can inform and validate what we know, unbraiding this intersectional paradigm requires more than studies can offer. We need a tempered radicalism (Meyerson, 2001); a concurrent persistent involvement in our religious organizations and commitment to challenge, shift and change the values and practices that maintain white privilege, undergird patriarchy and halts egalitarian treatment.

For women of color, the answer lies in finding ways to hold institutions accountable while providing women with support to navigate these turbulent waters. This support should minimally be in the form of advocacy, mentoring for succession, coaching, employment assistance, and organizational hiring changes that bring about diversity and equality.

The WILNS has one more phase to complete. Their goal is to document best practices in the evangelical community and present a vision for cultural change as well as insights for developing future leaders.

My prayer is that in the process of completing phase three, serious thought will be given not only to how to best assist evangelical institutions in maintaining gender equity, but also how to best assist women of color in leadership who face particular challenges and who are woefully underrepresented. May God deliver us from being served more of what we already know.