Gender is everywhere, but we seldom notice it. When my young daughter brought a paper home from Sunday school, she and I looked at it together, as we often did. I wanted to hear more about what she was learning. But the picture caught my eye for another reason. It was a cartoon-like drawing of a bunch of children in Biblical times, all of whom looked like boys to me. I asked my daughter if she saw herself in that picture; that is, did she see any girls in the scene? She rolled her eyes, took a closer look at the picture, and said firmly, “There are girls there. Don’t worry mom; everyone looked the same back then.” Maybe she was right. The kids depicted were wearing long robe-like garments and sandals, and all had curly hair showing around the edges of their head coverings. But I was not so sure, and as the mom of a girl child, I wanted to be sure my daughter “saw” herself in the Biblical story.
Looking out across the plenary of the upcoming General Conference, it will be tempting to say the same thing – don’t worry, there are women out there. And there are, but only 306 out of 862 delegates, a disappointing 36% in a denomination made up of just over 57% women. It is a bit more complicated since half of the delegates are clergy and among clergy in the U.S., only 28% are women. By that measure, clergywomen are well represented, since women make up 29% of the clergy delegates. Laywomen are not as well represented, with women making up only 43% of the lay delegates. That means that even if all of the women participate in the General Conference discussion equivalent to their proportion of the delegates, they will still not represent the many women’s voices in the larger church.
That gender imbalance is unevenly distributed across the church. That is, 43% of the delegates from the US Jurisdictions are women, but the Philippines include only 30%, Europe sent only 28%, and from Africa, there are only 24% women delegates. Most shocking is this fact: there are five Annual Conference delegations that include no women at all. While each Annual Conference elects its own delegates, and each one has to decide how best to represent its membership, it is simply unacceptable to send single-gender delegations. Of course, there were also Annual Conferences that elected women to half or more of their seats, but in the end, there were far fewer of them (35.6%) producing the overall imbalance of 36% women.
It is too late to change the makeup of the delegations, but it is not too late to make sure gender balance is achieved in other ways while we are here. We can make sure that women are recognized to speak by the presiding bishop, that they are invited and encouraged to speak by others in their delegations, that women’s speeches are not interrupted or cut short, as compared to those by men. We can make sure women are not discounted as angry, or whining, or mean, or any of the myriad ways women in leadership are described as problematic.
Gender is hard NOT to notice these days, but clearly, we have not done enough in The United Methodist Church. Let’s make this General Conference as gender aware as possible, despite the challenges posed by the imbalance in the delegates. The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women will be monitoring for gender inclusion, and we hope to report that you’re doing a great job.