Staying in and Why it Matters

by Elizabeth Shively

I left an evangelical seminary to do my PhD at Emory University as a conservative young woman in a progressive institution. At one point, I wrote a paper for a directed study in hermeneutics, in which I discussed the authority of the Bible, and my professor, Gail O’Day, called me to her office for a conversation. Gail could be terrifying. She was tall, smart, articulate, and assertive. And so I was terrified. When I sat down with her, she said she was concerned about certain assumptions I had made about “God’s being at work” in the process of canonization. She didn’t conceive of it that way and genuinely wanted to hear my views. She didn’t terrify me at that moment; instead, she put me at ease. She encouraged me to articulate my ideas and she listened. In the course of the ensuing discussion, she helped me to distinguish between what I could claim in a critical argument based on empirical data and what I could not. She didn’t ask me to change who I was or what I believed, but instead challenged me to refine the critical nature of my thinking. While Gail was not my supervisor, she continued to come alongside me to name my aptitude for biblical exegesis, to call out any sloppy thinking, and press me to follow my aspirations. In seminars I took with her and classes in which I served as her teaching assistant, she modelled what it is to be an excellent scholar who happens to be a woman. I often thought, “I want to be like her” (but perhaps not so terrifying!).

There are countless others (both women and men) who have inspired, encouraged, or challenged me. But my relationship with Gail serves as a perfect example of the sort of mentoring and modelling that helped to retain and sustain me as I progressed from my masters studies to doctoral studies to teaching.

Retaining and sustaining women in theological education isn’t easy. A recent UK study reveals a female/male ratio of 60%-40% at the undergraduate level (comparable to other undergraduate degrees); a female/male ratio of nearly 40%-60% at the Masters level, 33%-66% at the PhD level, and 30%-70% at the level of academic staff. In short, women drop off through the educational trajectory. The study also compared the educational trajectory in religious and theological studies to that of other fields and found that women drop off in theological and religious studies at more than twice the rate as they do in philosophy, English, math, chemistry, or anthropology.[1]

It is not surprising, then, that the 2018 gender distribution of Society of Biblical Studies members, according to member profiles, is 68.46% male and 21.55% female (less than 1% transgender and 9.93% no answer). Even though women outnumber men in religious and theological studies at the undergraduate level, we haven’t figured out how to encourage many capable women to continue beyond that.

Yet we need to figure it out, because not to see and hear and read women (and minority and global voices) in biblical studies and theology impoverishes us. Without them, our scholarship, and our thought and practice may tend towards the monochromatic (as the history of interpretation and university syllabi show). Yet this does not correspond to the appearance of society, nor to the appearance of the church, which are variegated. Moreover, not to see and hear and read women damages our witness in a culture that is occasionally obsessed with identity politics. Even more, we lose key capable resources for developing our thought and practice. In a world such as ours, we need all hands on deck to contribute to the church, engage the public square, and progress the gospel.

So we need to begin early to encourage women to study and continue to encourage them through the trajectory of their studies on to teaching and scholarship. From my own experience, I suggest that women and men alike work intentionally to mentor women and model for them the sort of infectious teaching and scholarship that makes them say, “That’s what I want to do!”

Elizabeth Shively is Senior Lecturer at St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews. Her research focuses on the Synoptic Gospels and Mark in particular. Secondary interests include pedagogy and homiletics.  

[1] See M. Guest, S. Sharma, and R. Song, R. [2013] Gender and Career Progression in Theology and Religious Studies, Durham, UK: Durham University