Miles to go before parity…

Today, Project 3:28 announced that the gender balance of speakers at Christian conferences & festivals in 2016 has not improved on 2015’s figures. Overall, the average platform remains unchanged at 64% male, 36% female. Some festivals have made real progress, others have demonstrated that they are pretty consistent in trying to achieve parity (this is now the fourth year this data’s been collated). But there is still SO much room for improvement.


And, that’s before you dig deeper into the stories behind these numbers. What subjects are women speaking on compared with men? (Is it largely children’s work and marriage??) What roles do women hold compared to men? Are they church leader? (And only allowed to speak while sharing a platform with their spouse.) What is actually happening in these organisations and planning groups when line-ups are being formulated? Are things actually changing or is it short-term tokenism?

What is clear is that there is still a remit for Project 3:28 (named after Galatians 3:28) and a fuss still needs to be made. It’s by no means hopeless, but there is still a long way to go.

I’m lucky enough to live in a bit of a bubble when it comes to egalitarianism. I minister in a church where I am probably the 5th female curate the church has had and it’s had a female non-stipendiary minister for over two decades. Worship is lead by a female double-act on a very regular basis! I’m based in an area of London Diocese which has had a reputation of being ‘good’ for women for quite some time (although, having recently done some work on its gender stats, there’s a bit of a way to go there too). I don’t feel lonely as a female priest and I don’t often, in my day-to-day ministry, find my gender to be an issue. But in a wider context? Oh dear…

The Church of England still has some things to sort out. It’ll take time, but I’m hopeful. What has given me even greater hope recently are conversations I had with two male priests at a conference for curates last month. Having begun the conference suddenly realising just how out-numbered female curates are in London Diocese [this shouldn’t have been a surprise, I know the numbers!], I left feeling hugely encouraged.

One evening, a friend had actually wept as he shared with me and another female curate his passion for encouraging the young women in his church into leadership. He was desperate to find people who could be role models for them, people who could inspire them and who they could look up to. He knew how important it was to find this, because as a young man from an ethnic minority, he had benefitted enormously from having someone ahead of him in the vocational journey who he could identify with.

Another had engaged with me in a vigorous discussion of reasons why women are still under-represented in the diocese. It’s the kind of conversation I often have with women and sporadically have with men. When it’s the latter it’s always encouraging, because for change to happen, men need to be a part of it. We women may worry about sounding like a broken record by consistently raising the issue, but when we know we’re not on our own doing that, it’s truly heartening.

Knowing that there are men out there who think like this and are taking action as a result is great. I love my feminist sisterhood, but men are more than welcome to join us! In fact, while we’re still the minority in church leadership structures, their support is utterly essential. Now, if we could get some more of these people in charge of the nation’s Christian gatherings, perhaps next year’s Project 3:28 figures will show a great improvement?

What the church needs are more feminists who look like this…
(Ok, yes, I was just looking for an excuse to use that image!)

The mysterious case of the vanishing women…

We are mid-way through the Rio Olympics. So far, I have watched approximately 10 hours of gymnastics; two Murray matches that have aged me considerably; a few cycling victories; and two rowing golds for Team GB which I observed while getting sweaty on a cross-trainer and feeling very despondent about the intensity of my workout!

Artistic Gymnastics - Women's Team FinalOne woman who has *not* been invisible in Rio! 

A couple of times now, while watching the BBC’s coverage (which is excellent, incidentally – God bless the myriad live streams available!), a short film has been shown on the topic of the ‘greatest Olympians’. It’s narrated by Michael Johnson – himself a contender for that accolade – and features archive footage of great athletes going back decades. Many of the usual suspects feature: Muhammed Ali, Jesse Owens, Usain Bolt, Carl Lewis, Emil Zatopek, Steve Redgrave, Chris Hoy… I could go on.

On my first viewing, I noticed that the athletes were predominantly male. The second time it appeared on the screen, I made a point of counting the number of women who appeared. Out of a total of 21 athletes [working on the basis of presuming an individual was the focus of group shots – e.g. just Steve Redgrave rather than the whole boat crew] just four were female. They consisted of: Fanny Blankers-Koen; Kathy Freeman, Mary Peters & Nadia Comaneci. Only Comaneci and Freeman get name-checked, in contrast with the majority of the male athletes.

The first woman appears 1 minute into the 2min 16s film. Comaneci appears twice – leading me to initially believe five women appeared. Several of the men appear more than once. Some of them even speak. But not the women.

BBC Greatest Olympian?

Looking up the video on the BBC website, it becomes clear that these are apparently Michael Johnson’s choices. In which case, perhaps fair enough – it’s a matter of personal opinion. But that isn’t clear in the video itself. A video that’s being shown at regular intervals on broadcasts being watched by millions of people, including many who may need a bit of inspiration from seeing something of the history of inspirational women that have been part of the Olympics! To be honest, the BBC should know better. Especially after the Sports Personality of the Year debacle from a few years ago.

Even the article that goes with the video makes it clear in its first paragraph that if you measure ‘greatness’ based upon number of medals won, then the top contender is a female gymnast – Larisa Latynina (18 medals, nine of them golds). Did she feature in the video? No. It then goes on to suggest another measure: medals earned over several Olympiads. Again, the ‘greatest’ in this category is a woman – Birgit Fischer who won 8 golds over 6 Olympics in canoeing – admittedly someone I’d never heard of, but did she feature? No, but Steve Redgrave (5 golds in 5 games) did.

In fairness, it does highlight the achievements of Fanny Blankers-Koen (one of only two mothers ever to have won Olympic gold) and Nadia Comaneci (scorer of the first perfect gymnastics score). But there really is so much more that could be said!

So I did my own research. (Hello Google.) I discovered some brilliant un-sung stories, including…

Dawn Fraser (Australia, swimming). Won 8 medals in total (4 gold, 4 silver), in the 1956, 60 & 64 games – including winning the 100m freestyle three times. Only one other woman has done that in swimming. Brilliantly, after playing a series of pranks at the Tokyo games in 64, she was banned from the Olympics by Australia’s national committee, meaning that she didn’t get the chance to defend her title a third time.

Valentina Vezzali (Italy, fencing). Won 7 medals (5 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze) over four Olympics (96, 2000, 04 & 08). With a maximum of two medals available in foil fencing in any one games, that’s pretty impressive.

Elisabeta Lipa-Oleniuc (Romania, rowing). Winning her first gold aged 19 in 1984, she then won a medal at every games up to and including 2004. Twenty years!

Jackie Joyner-Kersee (USA, athletics). Won 6 medals over 4 games – including back-to-back heptathlons in 88 and 92, followed up with long jump bronze in 1996!

Krisztina Egerszegi (Hungary, swimming). 7 medals over 3 Olympics (1988, 92 & 96) and is the only other woman to have won gold in the same swimming event in three consecutive games.

Apart from Joyner-Kersee, I’d not heard of any of these women – yet (on medal tally & longevity) they rank amongst the top 10 female summer Olympians. In comparison, I could probably have told you something about every single one of their male counterparts – those are stories I’ve heard re-told again and again every time the Olympics comes around. Treatment of women in sport is bad enough (I presume everyone’s seen the terrible reporting even in this year’s games?!?), without forgetting the stories of those who went before.

Come on BBC. We know you can do a lot better than this.

Great Olympic women...What Google brings up if you image search ‘great Olympic women’…

The lady cement mixer

“And amongst their number is a lady cement mixer…”

The Bishop of London’s deep tones rang out across the congregation gathered for ordinations at St Paul’s Cathedral, and as he did so, people sitting near me conferred quietly. “Who *is* this lady cement mixer??” they murmured – for, amongst those being ordained, this was the second reference to this mysterious woman in just two days. From the seat behind, my sister giggled, she had guessed the answer. My mother apparently hadn’t, for several hours later,  she asked me who it was – to which the response came from more than one person gathered there: “It’s Liz of course!!”

In my defence, I had been asked to complete a form that shared some information about myself with the Bishop. What did I enjoy doing in my spare time? What hobbies did I have? There was even an instruction to be a little bit different. So I shared my hobby of house renovation in France, complete with the acquisition of the skill of cement mixing. And thus, I became “the lady cement mixer”.

IMG_7282Lady cement mixer at work. The stuff gets EVERYWHERE.

It’s embarrassing. Not because I am in any ashamed of my Chateau Duffy skills, but because there are probably people who heard the Bishop’s words and thought to themselves: “How wonderful!! Not only was a woman working on a building site, but she then felt a call from God and is now ordained! Fantastic. London is such a diverse church!!” When in fact the truth is that a terribly middle class woman has some slightly odd hobbies – hobbies that actually, she shouldn’t tell churches too much about, because otherwise they’ll want her to start fixing things!

The Bishop’s words were uttered a year ago last week. [Confession: this post was sitting in drafts for ages! My ordination birthday is July 4th…] I’m officially a Reverend of one year’s standing! But they came back to me last month, as I not only mixed more cement (as apparently it’s believed I’m the only person who knows how to do – I am not!), but also learnt about plastering and how to tile a bathroom. Pretty soon I could start my own business…

Perhaps I shouldn’t be quite so embarrassed by the Bishop’s fascination with the female ordinand who can mix cement. After all, how many people do you know who can mix cement? How many of them are women?? Do any of them do it for fun?

Liz the vicarThe lady cement mixer in her natural habitat…

One of the many things that Chateau Duffy has taught [and it’s categorically taught me A LOT], is that I love breaking gender stereotypes. I knew this already (hello lady vicar), but the world of building sites is so dominated by one gender that it feels more noticeable there. Am I as strong as other people? Not necessarily. Am I happy to scamper across the roof or to balance precariously upon things? Nope. But do either of these things have much to do with my gender? Not really. [I concede that the men are generally stronger, but that doesn’t have to be a gender thing. I am very anti the cries of “Can we have some men to help with…” that go up at events when some marginally heavy lifting needs to be done.]

On our most recent trip, there was a day on site when I was the only woman present. I actually didn’t realise this initially – I was ankle deep in mud, standing in a 1 metre deep trench and it was difficult to see anything that was going on that wasn’t to do with the removal of mud and rocks. I was proudly putting to use my brand new steel toe capped wellies [an emergency purchase the day before after an old Primark pair split – they were a massive bargain courtesy of my favourite ex-pat], while desperately trying to clear the last few inches of the trench. But when another woman popped by and pointed out my unique status

Trench WelliesCaught between a rock and a hard place. (Standing in 1st position – because of lack of space) 

My job wasn’t super hard. I was following behind a friend using a pick axe (and later a jack hammer) – they broke up the rock and I removed it. It was tedious and tricky. The trench was too narrow for feet to stand side by side, so there was some physical dexterity required, plus a little ingenuity when the spade became too wide for the trench. And thus I found myself putting skills acquired during pilates to excellent use: standing on one leg, the other hooked up on the ground above the trench; and one arm stretched out over the ground while the other clutched a trowel – in this position I was able to do an elegant and safe bend down to the bottom of the trench. (And looked ridiculous, but no matter, it worked.)

Trophy gloryMy efforts in the trench even earned me a trophy!  

The thing with Chateau Duffy is that it’s completely dependent upon team-work, and the willingness of individuals to pitch in at whatever level they’re capable of. Some people turn up who are trained architects, builders, plumbers or general DIY-y type people. Other people come with other important gifts – like cooking amazing meals for large groups of people. And yet others – myself included – turn up to learn new skills, pitch in wherever’s needed, and generally do their bit for the greater good of seeing the building finished. One day. One day…

I work hard because it’s fun. I love a challenge. I want a place to go on holiday to in the future. And, because I really like the novelty of being a female vicar who knows her way around a building site. It’s not so much “This girl can” as “this lady vicar can”. Can, does, will and LOVES it.

Inspiring women

One of the things that impressed me in Ogongora was the role that women have played in the PEP process. We’ve met several women whose lives have truly been transformed by the initiative, which is really encouraging as in rural areas, women often get even more of a raw deal than the rest of the population.

Woman & baby, Ogongora

Being a woman is tough. For a start, the cost of educating your brothers might be a higher priority than the cost of educating you and your sisters. If you do get to school, you might have to leave when your period starts owing to the shortage of toilets, embarrassment or lack of sanitary products. Your marriage might be a major source of income for your family, meaning that love may not be a significant factor in the choice of your husband. Domestic violence is common. Rates of HIV infection are high. Being widowed or abandoned can result in being left with many children to care for on little or no income. I could go on…

However, PEP is changing this. The increase in income and a growth in understanding of prospects that education provides has ensured that families aim to educate all their children, regardless of gender. Widows are finding ways of generating an income to provide for their families. Wives are supplementing their family’s income and becoming empowered because they know that they are an asset to their community.

Elizabeth & her food storeElizabeth and her granary.

On our first day in Ogongora, we met Elizabeth. [Who features on the Tearfund website and who Bex wrote about on Tuesday.] She is a true success story – once a widow who had to beg for food, she now possesses a grain store that’s full to overflowing (the overflow is stored in her hut). She has food to store for the famine season, to sell at the market, and to help those in the community who need it. When we asked her how PEP helped her, she replied that it had helped her realise that she had ‘the gift of time’. Once upon a time, she said she wasted hours chatting with other women. Then she realised that if she spent more time on her garden, she would (literally) reap the benefits. Her life is far from perfect – there are still issues with her husband’s family over land ownership – but it has significantly improved in just a couple of years.

Anna & NormaAnna and Norah in Ogongora church.

Yesterday, Bex and I met with Norah and Anna – two women who appear to be stalwarts of the Ogongora community. Norah has greeted us with cheers, dancing and a flag every morning and has been one of those who has prepared food for us to eat. She founded her own business through the PEP process and as a result earned enough money to ensure her daughter could qualify as a nurse (quite an achievement!) and is now totally debt free.

Anna is HIV+ and widowed, but her story is unlike many others you might hear of those in similar circumstances. She has always been open about her status, and has been on the receiving end of both positive and negative behaviour in return. At one point, people created rumours suggesting that she put her infected blood in the food she cooked at her ‘hotel’ (which usually refers to a cafe). But thanks to PEP she has found the money to put both her adopted son and her nephew through school. Health issues and their associated costs are constant concern, and her future is by no means certain, but she knows that the community are supporting her too.

Today, we participated in an act of worship in the village (Dave’s written about this in more detail, complete with a video of some fabulous singing). Being the feminist that I am, I was delighted that it was Anna who kicked off the service and took an active role throughout – and that the pastor’s wife led prayers. In fact, I discovered yesterday that not only does PAG have female pastors, they also have a female bishop! Odiira simply could not understand why female bishops was still an issue in the Church of England! (I know how she feels…)

At the end, there was a time of prayer ministry and a lady called Lucy came forward, who Katie and I interviewed afterwards. Lucy is not one of PEP’s glittering success stories. She is widowed, 60, and responsible for her 5 grandchildren. Ill health is preventing her from continuing with the business she began with PEP. The youngest boys had dysentry last week; she has been suffering from chest pains. She shared that they can only eat once a day – in the evenings – and even then it was probably only millet porridge. In this community she is old, yet has to deal with the demands most of the women only face when they are more than 30 years younger than she is. Before we left, Katie and I prayed with her – it was all we could do.

Lucy and familyLucy and her twin grandsons (in purple).

In Ogongora, inspiration and heartbreak live side by side. It’s always difficult to know how to deal with the latter.

Gathering Women

Just as the world is divided along gender lines; so the Christian world is divided as to whether single-sex gatherings are a good idea. Some men might scorn a curry and football night, while many women would run in the opposite direction from a women’s prayer breakfast hosted by someone clad in a twinset and pearls. [In fact, there was an interesting debate to this effect on Dave Walker’s blog some time ago.] 
Personally, I love a good women’s gathering (it’ll be that single-sex education/Guide career kicking in again). I like being in a safe-space to discuss issues relating to women (no, I don’t mean Mooncups) and being amongst women who are facing similar questions and dilemmas in life. At my last church, I liked that they weren’t pink and fluffy (both the event and the women) and that it was a rare chance to be lead in worship by someone who sang in a key I could sing in too. However, I draw the line at female events where there is a plethora of pink, pearls and pashminas and where I’ll learn how to support my husband in his ministry. Ergh. 
Fortunately, the women’s gathering for which I gave up my Saturday involved no pink fluffiness. (There were pashminas, but only because the church was so flipping cold!) It brought together Christian women in leadership – it wasn’t just vicars (in fact they were in the minority), or even those in leadership of churches – all sorts of women in leadership roles were there. We weren’t there to men bash, or to stir up a feminist revolution; it was simply about networking, discussing what works against women in the world (including women themselves), the theology of women in leadership and being in solidarity with one another. 
During the day, I found myself re-telling the story I told in a blogpost written nearly a year ago, about how I was increasingly having to label myself and act more like a feminist – particularly since starting ordination training in the Church of England. Little has changed since that post was written. I still find myself banging the drum for women at college and in the CofE and just yesterday, I had to point out to a colleague that the ‘girls’ on staff were just as capable of moving chairs as the ‘boys’ on the team he’d asked to help (clearly I need to show him photos of me building scaffolding). Certain male colleagues have also worked out that ironic sexist comments are a sure fire way of winding me up – and thus make them on a regular basis. I ask the questions that enable men in leadership to realise that a simple tradition (like men serving the bread and women serving the wine at communion in our church) actually appears to undermine women in leadership (as a result,  last week’s female servers were specifically asked to do it). Most of all, I’m intentionally seeking out women who are also fighting their corner who I can learn from and be in solidarity with – so this gathering was ideal. 
I met some fabulous women who are already friends and made some new ones too. I made a connection with a fellow vicar-in-training who’s training with a good chum of mine. Tweeters were identified and inspiring stories heard – oh, and the sauna dilemma was discussed with amusement. Most of all, I realised yet again that I’m not alone in a world that can often seem entirely dominated by men. I could wax lyrical about the specific nature of the discussions and presentations (which were great) but the best thing about the day was the people, their stories and their willingness to share them. Whether these women would have been happy to share them in a mixed context is an interesting question – I suspect some would have been reticent – which is why such gatherings are really important.
It struck me at the end of the day that my feminist rant of a post last year was inspired by something Jenny Baker had written, so it seems only appropriate that she – along with Wendy Beech-Ward – were to thank for getting these women together. If you’re a woman in leadership and want to get involved in the next gathering, let me know…