Shaped by Experience: Why #ChooseToChallenge Matters.

I was not raised a feminist. For this I am grateful. Instead, I was simply encouraged to be confident in who I am, and not to root my identity in a sense that to be treated with equal dignity and respect to others would require a fight. 

Yet as I’ve grown older I’ve become attuned to the ways in which inequality, based on my being female, has indeed shaped me, despite the many privileges and apparent “equalities” I enjoy.

How, you might ask?

It goes back a long way. For one thing, I’ve never – thank God – had to suffer leering and wolf-whistles like friends whose looks are closer to western society’s ideals of a “pretty girl”. Yet I could tell you about the time when I was still at primary school when I was invited to sit on an older man’s knee as he paid just slightly too much attention. Intuition helped me scarper from what might have become a much more damaging encounter, but still, I suspect the experience shaped me. 

I was lucky enough in the legal profession to work under female leaders who had been promoted to partner despite the glass ceiling. So I *knew* it could be done. But I could tell you also of the evidence of how costly it was – the price I saw those women pay in their relationships and families, which their male counterparts did not. Seeing their sacrifices shaped me.

I was fortunate never to experience sexual harassment from colleagues. But I could tell you about the client – a senior executive in a multinational – who, alone with me for a moment when my boss left the room, congratulated me on losing weight. Then he told me that prospective clients would always see a woman and “look first at your tits, then decide if he wanted to shag you, and only then wonder if you’re any good at your job”. I laughed it off and made sure the rest of my team heard the story… but his comments stuck, and it shaped me.

The church where I trained for ordination from 2011-2014 speaks out on  gender justice – and I am glad of this. Yet in three years of training, only two women modelled presiding at the altar for our cohort. And this is how my priestly vocation was formed. It shaped me.

I became a Christian in a denomination apparently far ahead of some others in seeking after gender equality – where men and women could both be called to serve in any role including Bishop. Yet in eighteen years, only one woman has been so called. It speaks loud, doesn’t it? And it shapes me.

I love my vocation. I am glad to have expertise and skills gained in a former career and other veins of education that I can offer in service of the Church, and fortunate to be part of a rich common life in my local community.  Yet often in my own institution, it feels like my former training and skills are invisible, and that in contexts where both women and men are present my voice and the voices of other women, are heard only as secondary to those of men. I am confident the men – and in some cases women – among whom I work would not recognise these behaviours and preferences in themselves. But they exist, and if I am not careful they will shape me.

I wonder sometimes if I am paranoid. But more and more, I’m confident I am not. Rather, I am more and more aware that the world is still full of inequality for women. And if I’m to live up to what I was brought up to believe – that I’m first and foremost a human; and that both I and all other women are made in the divine image – then it’s time to stop letting the micro- (and more macro-) aggressions slide. They matter. They matter because they shape women, and their shaping is a form of diminishment. So I should should #ChooseToChallenge. 

Happy International Women’s Day. 

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