I grew up as the sister of a brother who is four years older than I am and as the only girl in a neighborhood full of boys around my age. I learned early on how to become “one of the guys.” Sometimes I played with my dolls by myself, but often I played outside with the boys—smearing mud on my face to play hide-and-seek in the woods, learning to throw a near-perfect spiral with a football, and even finding myself involved in a fist-fight or two. I loved those guys; they became good friends as we grew, one of them even becoming the godparent of my children.

It’s always felt pretty natural for me to be “one of the guys.” In the three churches I’ve served in ministry, I’ve always been the only woman on the ministerial staff. I’ve loved those guys, too, and count many of them as mentors, advocates, and dearest friends. I’ve been the only woman on many councils and committees and boards, told that I was included to bring a female voice to the table (I usually appreciated the effort). For the most part, I have thought my voice and perspective has been valued in those places.

But recently while listening to a podcast, I heard Malcolm Gladwell reference a study done by Rosabeth Kanter, a researcher at Harvard Business School, in the 1970s. Kanter was called in to consult with a business that had just hired 20 women to join the 300 men on their technical salesforce. These women were scattered in workplaces around the country, leaving most of them as the only female salesperson on a team with seven men. Despite their advanced degrees and technical talent, the women struggled.

After conducting many interviews, Kanter told the company that the reason the women weren’t doing well was because the company hadn’t hired enough of them! Being a “token” created a special set of problems, both for the majority and the minority. When the women were around, the men bonded together through things like dirty jokes and aggressive behavior, reinforcing what they already had in common at the expense of the women in their midst. The women felt scrutinized and self-conscious, uneasy about their own contributions. They felt pushed into particular and traditional feminine roles. They couldn’t be themselves when the proportion was not in their favor. But when one of those lone women was placed with other women co-workers, she could relax and be herself. She was not put on the spot or expected to represent her entire gender. As Kanter put it, the price for women of being “one of the boys” is a willingness to turn, on occasion, against the girls. Kanter didn’t give examples of what this might look like, but I can imagine a few – keeping silent or being expected to laugh at sexist comments, allowing men to dismiss or claim credit for the ideas of women, and perpetuating a traditional, authoritative model of leadership. Being “one of the boys” was not who these women were; it was who they were forced to be.[i]

This story made me wonder how my own ministry experiences might have been different if there had been other women with the same professional identity at the table. How might I have been different as a leader?  Might I have had more courage, or more empathy? What kind of dreams could we have dreamed together?

And it’s made me wonder about the many other women in ministry who serve in their own silos as the only female ministers in their setting. What can we do to encourage them, to support them, to empower them to use their uniquely feminine voices and skills? How do we challenge our churches and organizations to be intentional about bringing more gender balance to the table?

I’m grateful to be a part of this sisterhood of Baptist Women in Ministry, where women, along with the men who advocate for us, are heard and valued, a group in which we can grow in the confidence to be ourselves, just as God made us and called us.

[i] Find the podcast here:  http://revisionisthistory.com/episodes/26-the-hug-heard-round-the-world

Julie Long is associate director of Baptist Women in Ministry.