The Graham Rule and Barriers to Women in Leadership at Christian Colleges

It’s been a few weeks now since a Washington Post profile of Second Lady Karen Pence reminded everyone of comments made by her husband back when he was still an Indiana congressman: that Mike Pence “never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either.” The Pences are evangelical Christians, so as religion reporter Emma Green explained to readers of The Atlantic, the Vice President of the United States

Mike and Karen Pence
Mike and Karen Pence in 2015, when he was governor of Indiana – Creative Commons (Gage Skidmore)

seems to be following a version of the so-called Billy Graham rule, named for the famous evangelist who established similar guidelines for the pastors working in his ministry. In his autobiography, Graham notes that he and his colleagues worried about the temptations of sexual immorality that come from long days on the road and a lot of time away from family. They resolved to “avoid any situation that would even have the appearance of compromise or suspicion.” From that day on, Graham said, he “did not travel, meet, or eat alone with a woman other than my wife.” It was a way of following Paul’s advice to Timothy in the Bible, Graham wrote: to “flee … youthful lusts.”

As Bob Smietana has pointed out, Graham actually had four “rules,” but it’s the one involving women that generated heated debate. Green concluded that response to Pence’s behavior pointed to some lingering divides in American society: “Socially liberal or non-religious people may see Pence’s practice as misogynistic or bizarre. For a lot of conservative religious people, though, this set-up probably sounds normal, or even wise. The dust-up shows how radically notions of gender divide American culture.”

Linda Livingstone
Linda Livingstone – George Washington University

All this came back to mind earlier today when my Anxious Bench co-blogger Beth Allison Warren, a medieval history professor at Baylor University, asked if “the Graham rule” helped explain why the national gender gap in college leadership and senior faculty positions is even more pronounced at Christian colleges and universities. It ended up being a most timely post, published the day after Baylor (under fire for its handling of sexual assault by student-athletes) hired its first female president, Linda Livingstone, dean of the business school at George Washington University. In a conference call, Livingstone acknowledged that “it’s not the first time in my career I’ve been ‘the first woman.'”

Just how rare is such a hire? In her report, Kate Shellnut of Christianity Today noted that women account for fewer than 10% of the presidents of schools in the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU, of which Baylor is an affiliate member). “Women make up about 16 percent of top leaders at evangelical colleges and nonprofits,” added Shellnut, “while their status in secular organizations is well over double that, according to a 2014 study.”

That “2014 study” being the initial report of the Women in Leadership National Study (WIL), conducted by Gordon College provost Janel Curry and Wheaton College sociologist Amy Reynolds. (A Bethel alum, Jan was kind enough to write the foreword to our book on Pietism and higher ed, and then to record a podcast interview with me on the future of Christian higher ed.) After analyzing tax form data from nearly 1,500 Christian nonprofits (including 126 colleges and universities) and then surveying leaders at 450 of those organizations, Curry and Reynolds found some clear gender disparities. Overall, “women are found in lower percentages among the evangelical nonprofits and educational institutions than in the broader nonprofit world,” especially at the top levels of leadership. (As of 2014, only 5% of Christian colleges and 5% of large nonprofits had women serving as president or CEO.) About a quarter of the organizations surveyed didn’t have a single woman on their governing boards.  And while “94% of male leaders noted their support for women leading in society, a full 20% of women in our sample thought that their peers did not support their leadership.”

Women in Leadership study logoIndeed, 29% of the male Christian college leaders surveyed affirmed only men for “church leadership” (as did 14% of women). At the time of the study’s first phase, the only Christian colleges having female presidents were among those associated with denominations that ordained women, and no such leaders were found at “nondenominational or ecumenical institutions.” (Or at Baptist or Reformed colleges and universities, by notable contrast to Anabaptist and Wesleyan institutions — see p. 12 of the full report on this phase of the study. Of course, multiple Mennonite members have since left the CCCU over the sexuality debate.)

Curry and Reynolds concluded their research by interviewing leaders at nine nonprofits and five colleges that scored especially well on gender indicators. I hope anyone reading this post who exerts any kind of influence within a Christian college or university takes the time to read the report they issued in January, since it shares several specific recommendations to help those institutions do better at recruiting, developing, promoting, and supporting female leaders.

Which (finally) gets us back to the Graham Rule… Not only do Curry and Reynolds generally urge leaders to invest in developing women as leaders within their organizations and to cultivate collaboration, but they especially emphasized the importance of male leaders publicly supporting women, mentoring them, including them in networks traditionally reserved to men, and “modeling professional male-female relationships.” Of course, all of these activities are made more difficult by a rule that severely curtails the potential for such relationships to develop.

Indeed, the Graham Rule came up in an analysis of a particularly troubling barrier to women advancing in leadership at Christian colleges and nonprofits:

Jan Curry
Jan Curry – Gordon College

Beyond challenges associated with expectations and opportunities for leadership, several women also spoke about the suspicion of women’s sexuality and its implications for leadership. One woman, expressing a view held by several interviewees, noted that “We’re forced to be aware of our sexuality and be responsible for that…” Men, on the other hand, were more likely to talk about how they put up boundaries: one clear advocate for women stated that “I have to have clear boundaries because sexuality is always there.” Women experienced disadvantages due to this fear of their sexuality. One person declared, “If you can’t meet with a door closed you’re never going to be privy to really important information. If you can’t have lunch with a man alone in a public arena you’re going to miss out on some very important establishment of relationship and shared lives and ministry together. If you can’t travel in a car with someone between points A and B alone you’re going to miss some of the most important talking that is 23 ever done between two colleagues.” While many colleges and nonprofits maintain high moral standards towards sexual behavior, these should not be equated with the exclusion of women, or the suspicion of them, within intimate professional spaces and networks.

I don’t know if Bethel was one of the five Christian colleges whose leaders were interviewed for the final phase of the study. But it wouldn’t surprise me if it was. As throughout our history, we have a male president, but almost every one of my other bosses is a woman: provost Deb Harless, VP/dean Deb Sullivan-Trainor, and department chair AnneMarie Kooistra. (We also have a female campus pastor, Laurel Bunker, and several other women on the executive leadership team. English professor Susan Brooks is the president of our faculty senate.) But not only am I blessed to serve under several women who model excellence in leadership, but most of my closest colleagues are women.

I can’t imagine living under something like the Graham Rule, but it’s safe to say that doing so would significantly stifle my professional and personal development. More importantly, I’m glad that our TAs and other students regularly see the women and men of our faculty collaborating on research, teaching, and institutional service. Hopefully they’ll go on to serve in Christian churches and organizations where such gender dynamics are the rule, and not the exception.


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