Gender, Calling, and Courage: Lessons from Christian Women in Academia

How can Christian women find the courage to follow the call of academia, and what does that life look like? At the Urbana 2015 conference, a panel of women in academia share insights into how they find life as Christians and women in the university setting.

Women in Academia panel at Urbana 2015

From Dec 27 – Jan 1, volunteers with our network of early career Christian academics are liveblogging seminars at the Urbana conference, a mission-focused student gathering of 16,000 Christians from across North America and the world. This post was co-written by Rebecca Carlson and Elsie Lee.

Kelly Seaton is an HIV vaccine researcher at Duke University who blogs regularly for InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network. She has traveled to Spain, Haiti, and South Africa. MaryKate Morse is a professor of leadership and formation at George Fox Evangelical Seminary. MaryKate has a doctorate in leadership from Gonzaga University, as well as an M.A. in Biblical Studies and a M.Div. from Western Evangelical Seminary (now George Fox Evangelical Seminary). She is also the author of Making Room for Leadership. Rachel Douchant is a philosophy professor at Lindenwood University and is the Liberty and Ethics Center Director there, as well as the Honors College co-chair. She received her Ph.D. from St. Louis University. Moderating the panel is Karen Guzmán, National Director for InterVarsity’s Women in the Academy and Professions and is a graduate of Michigan State University.

Women in the Academy and Professions

Karen starts out by introducing Women in the Academy and Professions (WAP), an InterVarsity ministry that has been in existence since 2002. Further resources from WAP can be found at The Well. She says that gender, calling, challenge, and courage are key themes in the battle of many women in academia. Articles such as The Confidence Gap and A Mother’s Ambitions highlight some of the issues facing women. Karen comments that, in addition to hardships, women can also find strength, courage, and a testimony that the God who has called them is faithful and can help them find life in the university. When women discover the gifts and passions that God has given, everyone benefits.

Rachel begins by saying that, although she now teaches philosophy at Lindenwood University, she did not initially know this was her calling. She discovered her passion through a female mentor at her undergraduate institution. She also comments that in her field, economic philosophy, women are a definite minority.

Kelly, an HIV researcher at Duke, says that she decided to go to graduate school because, at the end of undergrad, she realized she had learned a lot of things but still didn’t know how to put them into practice, so getting paid to learn how to do that in grad school sounded like a pretty good idea.

MaryKate also says that she didn’t originally have a vision for being in the academy. At eleven, she heard a clear call from God to missions. By the time she got to college, however, she had left God. After regaining her focus on the Lord, she served in Peru with her family, but, when her child got sick, she returned to the States and followed the Lord’s call to seminary. Although she started out with counseling, she later decided to get a M.Div. and a Ph.D. She couldn’t be a pastor because of her gender and therefore seized the opportunity to teach pastors at George Fox Evangelical Seminary. Later, she also got the opportunity to plant two churches, which has better equipped her with practical experience to inform her teaching.

Hearing and Responding to the Call

Karen asks, “How did you discern your call? How has your experience been different as a woman? How have you seen your call evolve?” Rachel replies, saying that philosophers have a strong sense of identity, which attracts people who are less mature and even have some grandiosity. She admits that she fit into this category when she became a philosopher in her twenties; however, throughout her journey she has expanded her sense of calling as she has let go of this and become more other-centered. She says that reading The Divine Conspiracy reawakened in her a passion for Christ, helping her to weave God-honoring ideas into her classes. It has affected the evolution of her scholarly work as well.

Kelly comments that her love for answering practical questions drove her into science. She was particularly interested in diseases that are challenges in global health, such as TB, malaria, and HIV. Over time, she has found that God’s vision is much larger than hers; for instance, although at first she wasn’t particularly interested in business, she obtained an MBA through a dual-degree program, which ultimately helped her get her current position at Duke.

MaryKate reminds the audience that pursuing higher education – especially for women – is an extraordinary privilege available to us in the United States. Women in many other countries never have the opportunity to express themselves outside of the home. She urges women to “live the dream because we’ve been given the opportunity” for “the sake of our sisters all over the world”. She also mentions that being smart is not necessarily essential for getting a Ph.D.; rather, if you have curiosity, passion and dedication, you can obtain that degree.

God is birthing something unique in each of us and MaryKate urges those of us trying to discern our calling to ask ourselves, “Who is God calling me to love?”. Once we have the answer to that question, we can figure out how we can achieve this through our studies. She also definitely agrees that she feels a lot of pushback as a woman in an evangelical seminary, even from her family, who she says doesn’t really understand what she does. She has even found students who refused to take her class simply because they felt uncomfortable with being taught leadership and spiritual formation by a woman. However, she says that the journey is worth it because she loves giving her whole life in the pursuit of God’s purposes.

External Challenges Unique to Women

Kelly comments that biology is now a majority female field and, although she works for a female faculty member, her supervisor is one of only two female faculty members in her department. She says that the biggest conflict she has experienced is Christian men’s view of her.

Rachel, on the other hand, says that her family as well as her evangelical community was very academic. Being at a Jesuit institution for her Ph.D., there were many others thinking about philosophy in the context of her faith. She also says that at her Anglican church she has been fortunate to receive a lot of support. However, in her academic life, she has experienced additional difficulties because of being a woman. She was writing her dissertation while pregnant with her first child and was pregnant as she started her first job. Her institution was very helpful, particularly because she works at a non-tenured institution with a teaching focus. Not having tenure enables women to stay in the academic market while having a family or taking care of young children without the crushing pressure of trying to get tenure.

MaryKate’s experience was a bit easier because she went to graduate school while her children were older and also in school. She emphasizes that it’s important to realize that in many male-dominated environments, people don’t have a nuanced view of the way women think. For instance, the male faculty nominated a male student for an award one year about whom she has heard many complaints from female students, stating that he was arrogant and often sexist. However, she felt that her perspective was dismissed mostly because she was female. Although sometimes being in these situations is incredibly challenging, MaryKate says that it keeps her close to God.

Internal Challenges Unique to Women

Karen comments that women suffer from the “imposter syndrome” much more than men, often believing that they got to where they are simply because of a mistake rather than having earned it. Rachel says that she definitely suffers from the imposter syndrome: although she was doing well in graduate school, she believed for years that her acceptance into the program had been a mistake or simply an effort to boost the percentage of females. She also says that she struggles with her demeanor with colleagues, and has had to work to learn how to assert herself with a “no-nonsense” attitude around her male co-workers and stop trying so hard to be liked.

Kelly says that being a single woman in the academy has been hard, sometimes leaving her wondering if her singleness is because of her career choice. Not having a helper or someone to provide for her if she loses her job. In difficult times, she reminds herself of 2 Timothy 1:7.

MaryKate says that it has been difficult for her to go to the center of conversations, rather than staying in a corner, and learning how to claim the role that she has to play was a challenge. However, she reminds us that it is God’s business what he does with us, but it is our business to show up and do our best.

Rachel reiterates that Christian doctrines such as humility and meekness may initially seem less necessary for women. However, she has learned over time that people-pleasing is its own form of pride.

Questions From the Audience

Women in Academia panel at Urbana 2015
How can women be emotional and still be seen as knowledgeable and articulate?

Rachel, as an extrovert, says she relates. Sometimes at work she simply tries to “take it down a notch”. She hopes that eventually this situation will change, but for the time being she attempts to tone down her passion a bit at work and express her excitement more around safe friends.

MaryKate adds that it is helpful to think of a male-dominated environment as a cross-cultural experience (she talks more about this in her book Making Room for Leadership).

Have you experience loneliness in male-dominated fields?
Kelly says that she definitely relates to this and has approached this by cultivating a strong group of female friends, both in church and at her school. She also emphasizes that InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network has helped her find a community with other Christian scholars.

MaryKate agrees that she has felt profoundly alone at times, but also feels that friendships she has developed help her know that others are on the journey with her and overcome some of these feelings.

How can we respond to people that have preconceived ideas about when women should have children?
Rachel replies that the most compelling way to respond is by emphasizing both calls, telling others that she is passionate about her children but also about what she does.

How did you balance studying for your Ph.D. with having a family?
Rachel says that she “ran around like a chicken with its head cut off”, wishing that she had had more spiritual formation earlier on. She also echoes Kelly and MaryKate’s earlier comments, stating that help from family and her community has been invaluable.

Karen also says that it is important to realize there is no one right way to tackle this problem, encouraging us to observe many other women to figure out our own unique way to approach this.

What are some differences that women bring in their approach and how can we articulate that?
MaryKate says that she is better able to see complexities of relationships than many men. She feels like she has better intuition for creating healthy environments with different types of personalities.

Kelly agrees that she is better able to notice subtleties behind what is being said and is able to engage all people at meetings.

Rachel, on the other hand, has noticed a difference in the perspective of her scholarly work, trying to bring together people who don’t want to be together. She says there is something uniquely feminine in holding on to what is good in each strand and bringing them together. “This is hard work, so be strong and courageous.”

How can we share our intellectual world with people who are close to us?
Rachel says that she had rather the opposite problem, often talking to people about philosophy and boring them excessively with things they aren’t interested in. However, she doesn’t think she is being inauthentic or disintegrated; however, she remembers that no one relationship is meant to serve all purposes.

Karen concludes the session saying that Women in the Academy and Professions would love to help anyone interested in hosting a similar panel on their campus to keep the conversation going.

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Rebecca Carlson

Rebecca is a junior at Michigan State University studying Chemical Engineering and Chinese. She is a leader in Bridges International and is a research assistant in a biomolecular engineering lab on campus. She grew up in Italy and loves learning about other cultures and languages, as well as chatting about immunology, bioinformatics, and the intersection of science and faith.

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