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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ask the Matriarch - Extending the Hand of Friendship

Our question for this week flows from a revgal’s reflection on a very unsettling incident:

This week I attended our monthly local clergy gathering. It was there that I had an experience I can't seem to get out of my mind. I tried to forget about it ~ pass it off as no big deal ~ but it's still there. Since I had been unable to attend last month, this was my first meeting of the new program year. Most of the regulars were there, but there were a couple new people. There were no official introductions (I assume those happened last month), so after a time of chatting I caught the eye of one of the new people, stuck out my hand and said, "I don't think we've met. I'm.... " This is where I was totally shocked. The man took my hand, glanced at me briefly and began a conversation with someone else while I was in the middle of saying, "I serve at....." I felt completely and totally dismissed. As our gathering went on, I noticed that this man's focus was mostly directed at the other men in the room. To him, it seemed to me, the women were invisible. Even after the official gathering concluded, and we were getting ready to leave, he went out of his way to say good-bye to the man I was giving a ride home to.... completely ignoring the fact that I was standing next to him.

While I have certainly experienced sexism, this was my first experience with such, seemingly, blatant sexism from a colleague in ministry. In my mind I tried to make excuses for him ~ perhaps he doesn't realize he is doing this ~ maybe it's not as bad as I think ~ he's new at this gathering and might be uncomfortable ~ maybe he is not used to dealing with women on a professional basis. But even if those things are true, it is not an excuse. And if he dismisses his colleagues like this, I wonder how he treats his female parishioners. So, my question becomes, what do I do at our next gathering? Do I hold my tongue? Do I challenge him? Do I subtly try to draw his attention to the gifts and graces of his female colleagues in the room ~ myself included? Should I speak with the other females in the group to see if they felt similarly? Is it worth it to put myself 'out there' when I could be seen as the one with the problem? Any thoughts?

Our matriarchs were of one mind with the suggestion that this revgal would benefit from checking in with other women who are a part of this group.

Ann responds:
This type of behavior seems common. I was hoping it was fading. It seems to persist especially among older men. They just don't see or hear women. Often in meetings women have the experience of offering an idea and receiving no response. In a few minutes some man will offer the same idea and everyone is "oh great idea, Tom." It makes one feel invisible. I try humor at first - as in "oh yikes - I seem to have fallen into the cone of silence here" when it happens.

The best thing is to talk it over with other women and male allies to confront it in the moment - so you don't seem like the only "bad girl" --- when an idea is put forth by a woman - others acknowledge it immediately -- with "can you tell us more about that, Mary?" When it is this scenario from the program detailed in our ATM question - attention can be called to it - as in "excuse me, I think Susan was speaking to you - maybe you did not hear her or realize it?" Sexism is so internalized - by all sexes - that it is hard to address without allies. The same dynamic occurs with any marginalized group - notice when it happens to people of color, people with disabilities - it is a symptom of a deeper issue.

A Wise layperson adds that since our revgal is new to the group, she has the power of ignorance of the group norms, allowing her to call this guy on his behavior if she chooses. Sometimes a group needs an 'outsider' to point out the elephant in the room.

Karen confirms the risk that exists with confrontation:

I think if you challenge him directly in a public gathering, you will run the risk of appearing to be the problem. I would check in with the other clergywomen at the gathering and see what they noticed--also to find out if he said something at the meeting you missed that might shed some light on how he acted. I'd give him at least one more chance--being very pro-active in engaging him in "safe" topics of conversation. "So how are Christmas plans coming in your congregation?"

Rector in Hawai'I shares some possible reactions she’d contemplate:

My initial snarky reaction to him is, "Excuse me -- were you born rude or is that a skill you had to learn?"

My not-snarky reaction is to basically get in his face in a very polite and gentle way...walking over to him and saying, "Hi, X -- good to see you again. How have you been?" If he turns away to talk to another man, interrupt and say to the other man, "I'm sorry, I didn't realize you and x were talking." Make it a point to say goodbye to him. Kill him with kindness.

On the other hand, if other women experience the same rudeness, it might be time to talk with the bishop about how to approach him. The bishop may or may not be willing to handle this, depending on how conflict-averse he or she is.

Or you could not expend anymore energy other than a polite smile and greeting when you come face-to-face with him. It all depends on whether it's you or women in general, and how much energy you want to expend on him.

Have you ever experienced this kind of behavior? How have you responded? Inquiring minds would like to know, and we would all benefit from the shared wisdom of our readers. Let us know by adding your comments to ours.

Photo courtesy of Twinklemoon


  1. In the situation where I experienced this, the man was the only one in the group who acted like this (which was key to how I dealt with it).

    I was always very polite and courteous to him. As I got to know everyone in the rest of the group and fully integrated into it, I would take part in the very animated, interesting, and eventually fun conversations. As time went on, it became very clear to all that he was choosing to be a jerk towards me, and started excluding himself from some of our great conversations because I was involved. It made it clear that the issue was about him and his behavior. I made sure to be on my absolute best behavior in my interactions around him (kill him with kindness).

    The couple of women who had been in the group before me had reacted by keeping very quiet, and letting him be a bully. With me, by being pleasant yet very vocal and involved, he had to marginalize himself.

    Worked for me anyway!

  2. Okay, maybe you can jsut take a frying pan and pop him into the
    21st century.
    But, this is my rude snarky side.
    Check in with other women. I have foudn that once you open a conversation up, you get a lot of info. Anytime we actually name the elephant (or male sexist pig) in the room, it opens up for conversation to happen. Esp for mwomen.

  3. Wife, Mother, Pastor is where I shared my story. Was my decision to avoid the group 'right'? I don't know, but it was my first year in ministry and I believe it was the healthiest for me.

  4. oh mercy gracious do I ever recognize this one! When I was a curate (and clergywomen were not plentiful in our region), I used to go to deanery meetings with my boss. The Archdeacon would initiate discussion, and carefully take notes, in writing, of what the male clergy contributed. And when I said my piece, he folded his hands and looked into space. My boss called him on it: "Excuse me, Theophrastus, you didn't note down what Rambler just said."
    The Archdeacon got over it -- that's the hopeful note -- sometimes, when someone has gone upside their head, these guys turn out to be quite good colleagues after all.

  5. i wonder if there is an age difference here? or if you're similar in age...

    i've decided life is far too short to deal with jack#$$es any more than i have to... so i give them wide berth and yet when forced to work with them... i look them in the eye when i speak... i figure if they want to act like they're 5 that's their problem. all i can do is trust in being me...

  6. I guess I would have asked the person I was giving a ride to.. if I knew him well enough to give a ride, I think I would probably say something like, "Pastor X seemed a little put off by my introducing myself today. In fact, he ignored me. Is there a protocol I'm missing, that I offended? Or is he hard of hearing?"

    And I would at least talk to someone local that I trust and ask, "what gives?"

    As for whether or not prejudice against women pastors still exists, I can only answer with an unequivocal "YES."


  7. I used to know a pastor who had to contend with a few members of her local ministerial association actually turning their backs to her during their meetings when she addressed the group, so intense was their animosity toward female clergy.

    Her m.o. was, as has been suggested, to be relentlessly friendly to these individuals despite their a$$holic behavior -- and to form a kind of informal caucus with the mainline/mainstream clergy in the group, who were also treated with varying degrees of disapproval by these "good Christian gentlemen." I don't think she made any headway with the latter, but her relationships with the former led to supportive professional friendships and fruitful inter-congregation collaborations.

  8. Here's a better link (at least I hope so, now that I'm posting it!) to Beth's story. Thanks for sharing it, Beth!

  9. The bishop who ordained me as a deacon didn't look me in the eye during the entire service; he only looked at the two men who were also being ordained with me. 21 years later and I can still feel the hurt and confusion of that dismissal on what should've been a thoroughly glorious day. Reading the question brought it all back in a flash, along with a number of other incidents throughout the years (fortunately in diminishing numbers).

    As time has gone by, I've found that I personally do best--in terms of my own peace of mind and heart--by moving on. These men know I'm there and are choosing to ignore or be rude to me, and nothing immediate that I say or do will change that. I'm there, I find others who are more congenial with whom to talk, I greet them politely if the occasion arises, and I leave it at that unless the situation is such that I truly need my voice to be heard. I completely concur with the idea of checking out the experience of other women or friendly men, because a reality-check can help me remember I'm not the one with the problem!

  10. I'm sorry to read this as a current situation, I'd like to think we all grew up. Personally, I hate to give my energy away, and this kind of thing just sucks it out of me. So I say: do whatever takes the least energy, and empowers you the most. He's not worth thinking about. Literally. Conserve your resources, Contribute to the meeting, enjoy, and maybe someday he'll realize he's missing out. Here is one of the most empowering sentences in the English language: "Don't give it another thought."

  11. I haven't yet dealt with this in the clergy situation, but my previous career was in engineering. As the only female engineer in many situations, and young to boot, I just pretended not to notice the slight and joined in as P.S. suggested. It either works or it doesn't, but you're not likely to change entrenched attitudes by "proving" whatever they're prejudice (in their minds anyway) by being overly aggressive, so be nice and ignore the chill.

  12. thank you for sharing this - and your insights.

    I've noticed too that sometimes when there's a majority of women we can (without meaning to) ignore the men. Or indeed be very cliquey with people we know and that excludes new-comers/outsiders especially in a church setting.

    The pastor here must be confronted - in love - with his behaviour, actions and consequences - but as I read it I felt convicted too.

    Do I welcome the stranger? No, not always.

  13. :-) I too would have to bite back a snarky comment, and have had to call a co-worker out on sexism recently, it is a very uncomfortable thing to do but sooo worth it!

    This should not happen in the 21st Century, but it does andneeds to be addressed.

  14. My inclination would be to ask myself if I wanted to make his issue my issue? Do I want to invest my emotional and mental energy in someone who is not likely to change his understandings or his behaviors? As long as his behavior wasn't influencing others, I would be more likely to ignore him and invest myself in more fruitful relationships with others in the group.

  15. Yes, I've seen this before too. Even blogged about it.

    The Invisible Pastor


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