You Can Be What You Can Read

by Katya Covrett

Coming to work for an academic publisher fresh out of seminary, I often found myself starstruck. Not even a year earlier, I was nose-deep in the latest and greatest books in biblical-theological studies; now here I was on a first-name basis with many of the academics whose books had formed me theologically. As is likely the case for many (most?) in my generation of divinity students, the vast majority of the authors we read, much like professors who assigned them, were white men—brilliant scholars and encouraging teachers to be sure—but men nonetheless.

Sixteen years hence, the stardom has long worn off to give way to questions. How would my path have been different had there been female scholarly role models on it, whether in the classroom or on the pages of the many academic tomes I devoured? How many more women in my class would have chosen a path of teaching and writing in the fields of theology, biblical studies, or philosophical theology if we had been taught by female scholars? I wonder.

In November 2017, Dr. Ellen Stofan, director of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and former chief scientist at NASA, wrote an article about women in STEM disciplines (that is, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). In what she cites as “appalling” numbers, women make up less than 25 percent of the STEM workforce in the US. “We know some of the reasons women and girls participate in STEM fields at lower rates,” she writes, “lack of encouragement, active discouragement, lack of role models, negative peer pressure and harassment. … ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ When asked to draw a scientist, most students draw a white man in a lab coat. The great majority of portrayals of scientists and engineers in movies and television shows has been men.”[1]

Divinity fields are not faring a whole lot better than the sciences. NAPS (the North American Patristics Society) and SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) match STEM at 25 and 24 percent female members respectively. IBR’s (Institute for Biblical Research) 16 percent may look like a failure but must be nuanced by the society’s active support and encouragement of its existing and new female members. Half of IBR board normally consists of women and its newly elected president is New Testament scholar Lynn Cohick. In fact, knowing the makeup of the board, I was surprised by the lower actual percentage of IBR female scholars.The consistent presence of women in IBR leadership certainly gives off a different vibe than the numbers alone might communicate and IBR’s female constituency is in fact growing. And then there is ETS (the Evangelical Theological Society) with a dismal 6 percent. That speaks for itself. But too many women never even reach the level of scholarly society membership: according to research done in some UK universities, the female dropout rate between undergraduate and doctoral programs in theology and religious studies is a staggering 50 percent.

“Well, look who’s talking,” you might say if you knew me. I never intended to go into publishing; I stumbled into it on the way to an abandoned idea of a PhD in biblical studies. In retrospect, I would not change that. I am enjoying a fruitful publishing career, which will continue through and beyond my recently started doctoral work. In fact, my work in academic publishing has afforded me an opportunity to speak on behalf of and develop female academics across a broad range of divinity disciplines.

Publishers are routinely chastised for lack of women in our publications and catalogs. As a female academic editor, I am acutely aware of the imbalance between male and female authors in publishers’ catalogs in general and the Zondervan Academic catalog in particular. Having worked hard to address this problem for over a decade, I can say from personal experience that the lack of women in publishers’ catalogs is often not for lack of trying. But with as few women as enter the academy, publishers typically start with a small pool of prospective authors to begin with, and once you layer on limitations of discipline, expertise, specialization, approach, the book idea itself, or any theological parameters, you are left with a handful—at best. And the few (or any) women left are already booked up for years to come or have other priorities, commitments, or preferences. Many simply say no. The representation of women in our academy—or lack thereof—is indeed appalling. We are in a better position now than even a decade ago but not nearly where we should be. If women are to be better represented in publishers’ catalogs, it has to be a publishing vision upfront and a constant commitment in the publisher’s acquisitions strategy. Speaking for Zondervan Academic, we are constantly and intentionally seeking out qualified, capable, and willing female scholars to write and contribute.

Publishers play a key role in shaping the future of the academy, if even by the choices we make in what we publish. One often-overlooked but decidedly strategic way to shape the future of the academy is in publishing textbooks that become formative for future generations of academics. Think about it. If my own experience is any indication, students tend to adore their teachers, whether in classrooms or in books. How will this new generation of divinity students, both women and men (maybe especially men), ever learn to learn theology from women if all of their core textbooks are written by men? Face it, even today many divinity students may never have an opportunity to be taught by a female professor in person. But every class has textbooks. Strategic opportunity? I’ll say.

Strategy or not, publishers are constrained by the shape of the academy. Indeed, there are more women teaching and writing in divinity disciplines now than when I was in seminary twenty years ago, offering female academic role models and mentors my generation did not have. But if the aforementioned percentages say anything, it is that we have a lot of work to do. We need more women studying, teaching, writing in the fields of theology, biblical studies, and philosophical theology if we want our daughters to imagine what they can be and our sons to learn learning from women.


Katya Covrett is Executive Editor at Zondervan Academic, responsible for acquiring works in various areas of biblical-theological studies. Originally from Russia, where she served as a translator at Far East Russia Bible College, she came to the US to study the Bible and theology, stumbled into publishing, and has been part of the Zondervan editorial team now for over sixteen years. She has extensive experience acquiring and editing academic books and actively seeks to support female scholars entering and persisting in the academic publishing world. Katya also serves as an advisory board member of Logia, an initiative of the Logos Institute at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, which seeks to support women in divinity education. She has a BA in English Linguistics from Khabarovsk State Pedagogical University and an MTS in Systematic Theology and New Testament from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. She is currently working on a PhD in the New Testament at the University of Aberdeen, supervised through Trinity College Bristol.