"I Can Do It" But Should I?

Post author Rev. Dr. Courtney Pace is Assistant Professor of Church History at Memphis Theological Seminary. She specializes in social justice issues in American religion, particularly race and gender. She is a board member of Equity for Women in the Church, creator of the "Stole Sisters" podcast, and a figure skating coach. 

I've spent a lot of time thinking about gender inequity in the workplace, particularly in church work and higher education.

Why aren't women paid the same? Are women asked to do the same amount of work as men? Why are women such reliable lay volunteers but excluded from top leadership, or in the case of higher education, why are the most reliable staff often women, but the top leadership are almost always men?

While this is still an ongoing wondering for me, I do have some ideas. Please keep in mind that these are all general tendencies, and that I am in no way trying to speak for all women or all men or all churches or all educational institutions. These are just general observations, to which I'm sure there are nuances. (And the reason I had to write that at all is because I know there will be men who read this and want to quickly correct me for how non-sexist they personally are, without even taking the time to think about how they benefit from the system by being male or how their complicity with these systems does perpetrate sexism.)

Women are incredibly competent. We are good organizers, good with people, and willing to work hard to acquire new skills. We are ideal employees!

We are also very good jugglers, because we have had to be. (This was the most unsatisfying punchline of a rom com ever, in I Don't Know How She Does It.) We are constantly juggling to-do lists, long-range plans, short-range plans, grocery lists, menus, drop-offs, pick-ups, health care needs and frequencies, car repair needs and frequencies, budgets, organizing strategies, physical fitness for the family, sports and activities for the family, whose birthday is when and what gift to give, upcoming travel plans, what to wear in the family photo and who/where/when to take it, etc. And that's just our personal life, what some scholars have called "emotional labor." Even if there is a partner to help with the execution of household and family responsibilities, women tend to be the ones who manage this work, keeping track of what needs to be done and when, and delegating the responsibility. We still hold it, even if others help us do it.

And, we are juggling in parallel at work. We are thinking about committees, reports, newsletters, events, networking relationships, upcoming hires, upcoming presentations, class prep, professional development, conferences, association membership and leadership, etc. And even those women who are lucky enough to have a staff to help them are having to keep track of everything to appropriately delegate the right tasks to the people who can best execute them. We hold it all.

And on top of that, women tend to volunteer for things much more often than men. Whether it's to demonstrate competency, lean in with ambition, or a sense of obligation to help others whenever in need, women tend to volunteer for way more than men do.

In higher education, this means women spend more time advising, counseling, serving on committees, assisting with other departmental efforts, etc, which takes a lot of time and often interferes with having sufficient time for things that directly lead to promotion - namely, teaching and publication. So, the system of university evaluation and promotion systemically disadvantages those who are more engaged in service, which typically means women and minorities, the very folks already facing disadvantage in the field.

In church life, this means women spend more time on pastoral care visits, answering phones or returning calls, sending cards, offering mid-week Bible studies, sitting on committees, or having planning conversations. They are the backbone of the work, but very little in the limelight. And because of expectations that pastors serve their congregations, and the prejudice against women pastors, it is very difficult for women pastors to say no or to set boundaries on their time.

Serving professions (teaching, ministry, social work, etc) attract people who care about others and want to make the world a better place through service. These fields attract a lot of women. And women tend to be among the most competent in all of these fields, and more.

But these are the same fields that tend to exploit the labor of women, letting them put in extra hours without bonus pay or promotion, letting them sign up for lots of extra service opportunities but not factoring that in their evaluations, expecting them to produce results but not guiding them in how to budget their time so that they can succeed on the career ladder.

I'm so tired of the quick-and-thoughtless response that women are choosing to raise families, which is why they aren't seeking career mobility. What that means is that women are still expected to do most if not all of the work of raising a family, even if they work full-time, but men now want to take half or more of the credit.

And what's worse, it's so rare for men to volunteer for something that, when they do, a big deal is made about it. How many times have you heard moms at school compliment a particular dad for helping, but not expect similar gratitude for their consistent above-and-beyond helping? He did it once, which is so rare and precious, so we must throw him a parade, but never mind that we rise to the occasion on top of our regular jobs day in and day out!

Just yesterday, a colleague and I were trying to visualize the life of some of the men we know professionally. Wake up and put on clothes you did not wash, eat a breakfast you did not cook made from groceries you did not purchase and put away, drive to work at a leisurely pace without the hubbub of children's drop-offs, work until you feel done for the day, drive home at a leisurely pace without the hubbub of children's pick-ups or errands, rest a bit in a comfortable chair before you eat a meal you didn't cook made from groceries you did not purchase and put away, read or watch television leisurely until you were ready to go to bed, and then repeat. We could not imagine it. Even when our children are staying elsewhere for a night, we are still juggling laundry, errands, menus, lists, tidying, health, and relationships. We don't get up when we want. We don't go to bed when we want. We often leave work before we feel done for the day. And when we do get home, we start an hours-long shift of caretaking, cooking, cleaning, and prepping for the next day. I'm lucky if I get 30 minutes of leisure time before I go to bed. But the men we were thinking of often post loving dad pics on Facebook, which is perhaps the only 30 seconds they spent with their kid all day. Most of their time is about themselves, yet they get credit for being an invested parent. Mom, on the other hand, is doing most of the work at work and most of the work at home, and it's "normal" so we take it for granted.

I doubt that most institutions mean to exploit the labor of women. I suspect that a problem is posed, a woman volunteers to help or has already demonstrated capability to solve the problem, and she is tasked. Women are doing more work, for less pay, and then going home and putting in another full-time job's worth of a shift to care for their families. Even if they have a staff at work and a supportive/responsible partner at home, women tend to carry the burdens.

It's a vicious cycle. If I say no to something I know I am capable of doing, I feel guilty, like I'm not being a responsible member of my community. But there are some things that I just don't have the resources to do. I don't have the time or emotional energy to take on every project that needs doing. Others have much more time than I do, they just aren't volunteering. Others know how to do the task just as well as I do, or even better, they just aren't volunteering.

And in the faculty/staff meeting, inevitably, the leader will ask for volunteers, there may be an awkward silence, and odds are a woman will fill it by volunteering herself. We are used to juggling a million responsibilities, so what's one more? We can get it done.

But is this ultimately helping us, making us look more like members of the team, and demonstrating our well-rounded capability? Or, is this keeping us in a hamster wheel, so bogged down in the things that others weren't willing to do, that we undermine our own career progress?

I'm not saying women shouldn't invest where they feel capable and able to help. Each woman should get to determine such things for herself. I'm saying that some environments recognize women as super jugglers and systemically take advantage of them, whether those environments realize they're doing this or not. I'm also saying some women don't realize when it's happening to them, and think that eventually their hard work will be recognized, but ultimately end up getting passed over for promotion by a man.

It's a complex problem that will require careful reflection by all involved. There's not one solution. The answers likely depend on the specific context. Some employers are being very careful to ensure that service counts for promotion. Some employers encourage their junior staff/faculty to judiciously limit their involvement so that their time can be devoted to developing new courses and publishing. And some employers insist on offering supplemental pay, revised job titles, or promotions for those who truly exceed their job descriptions. Some employers keep tally of who has volunteered for what and require those whose numbers are lagging to pull their weight.

But it is a problem. Even if women get to the executive table, which is still incredibly difficult, the table isn't set up for fairness. Men reap higher dividends even when women make bigger investments. The playing field is not level. And until the systems that perpetuate uneven expectations and uneven rewards for women are redeemed, we will have tokenism at best.

 This blog originally appeared at courtneypace.blogspot.com