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Key finding: "subtle" sexism in contemporary clergywomen's experiences | 1

The extent to which contemporary clergywomen deal with pervasive and recurrent forms of subtle “everyday sexism” is one of the clearest and most important findings of our study. According to our data, eight out of ten of our female participants experienced everyday sexism.

I served there [in one of her parishes] two weeks ago, and somebody commented on the fact that I was wearing pants and not a skirt: "Oh dear God." They make comments all the time on how high my voice is, and when I chant, they call it like a dog whistle, and they feel like it's too high and they can't understand it. For a woman, I don't have that high of a voice. But, you know, it's comments like that… What they're trying to imply is that me being a woman is distracting, and they can't worship because I'm wearing pants or because I chant too high…

[The other priests] wear really extravagant vestments, which are all too big for me. I am 5’ 4.” I'm an average height woman, but all of their vestments are made for men. And they were saying, "Oh, well, they shouldn't have a woman celebrate because they're going to get our vestments dirty! They're going to drag [them] on the floor." You know, it's like things like that, where you're just, like, "Whatever."


Allison, 34, curate (first appointment), TEC


Allison’s story of ordinary slights and alienating comments does not represent an exception. For this reason, in our research, the idea of an “ill-fitting robe” has become a metaphor to portray contemporary clergywomen’s experiences. Female congregational leaders are mostly accepted. However, they still face significant prejudice and have to “make do” with a role heavily shaped by male stereotypes.


Key finding: The extent to which contemporary clergywomen deal with pervasive and recurrent forms of subtle “everyday sexism” is one of the clearest and most important findings of our study. According to our data, eight out of ten of our female participants experience everyday sexism.


Prejudice based on gender in the workplace, or “everyday discrimination,” has been recognized as one of the most pervasive problems affecting working women’s physical and psychological wellbeing, as well as their professional performance and career perspectives. According to the 2018 Women in the Workplace report from Leanin.org and McKinsey.org,[1] 64% of women are exposed to this form of “ordinary” discrimination in their workplace, with non-white women experiencing it more than anyone else.


Overt expressions of prejudice based on race, gender, and sexual orientation, while still existing, are increasingly viewed as socially unacceptable. Most Americans—including progressive Christians—see themselves as “good people” who reject bigotry.[2] A recent study commissioned by the Presbyterian Church (USA) highlights the challenge of researching prejudice based on gender within the church. Almost half (49%) of the membership believed the matter not to be an issue in their denomination. However, in the same study, 84% of female teaching elders reported having experienced discrimination, harassment, or prejudicial comments due to their gender. Four out of ten felt they had experienced gender bias in hiring, promotion, or selection for an official position within the PCUSA.[3]

Our research shows that these findings are by no means unique to the PCUSA. Recent studies show that covert prejudice has increased in American society.[4] Furthermore, according to our findings, the political and cultural climate of the last four years may have legitimized a resurgence of prejudice based on race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation.

In general terms, everyday discrimination or microaggressions can be defined as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group.”[5]

Contrary to expectations, scholarship shows that it is not overt sexism that primarily harms women. They know how to protect themselves from easily identifiable attacks. Instead, these everyday “papercuts” are the most damaging for women’s well-being and professional flourishing.


Research on the dynamics of subtle sexism is still relatively scarce.[6] However, existing studies highlight that subtle sexism invalidates women, dismisses their achievements, and limits their effectiveness in social and professional settings, with significant consequences for their career advancement. Furthermore, women’s recurrent exposure to sexist experiences leads to a wide range of psychological stressors, including a decrease in comfort, self-esteem, feelings of anger, depression, self-doubting, loss of motivation and sense of purpose.[7]


In our study’s context, participants emphasized that one of the most stressful aspect of these interactions was their unexpectedness and ambiguity. They often came from people they knew and trusted, such as colleagues, lay leaders, or church members. For this reason, they were inherently confusing and ambiguous.


Subtle sexism is hard to confront because the hidden message often contradicts the overt (seemingly benign) one.[8] A majority of our female participants described their first reaction to these interactions as a feeling of being “paralyzed” or “frozen.” In the fraction of time following the interaction, they asked themselves frantically: “Did this really happen? Should I respond? Will they consider me oversensitive, weak, or too emotional?” Consequently, most female participants resorted to self-silencing. They felt ashamed for their lack of response and would frequently re-run the sequence in private, promising themselves that next time, they would not be caught unprepared.


Sue calls this phenomenon “attributional ambiguity.”[9] The resultant self-doubting is particularly damaging because it “depletes psychological energy by diverting attention away from the surrounding environment in an attempt to interpret the motive and meaning of the person’s actions.”[10] Consequently, the receiver of these “microaggressions” must first try to discern the truth of her experience while protecting herself from further insults or invalidations.[11]


The expressions of “everyday sexism” our participants reported could be classified into specific categories.[12] They shared a common implicit message: women are second-class citizens, “space invaders,”[13] alien to the role, weaker and inferior to their stereotypical counterparts.


Some of these interactions could be categorized as “benevolent sexism”: well-meaning, paternalistic attitudes designed to protect a stereotypical “weaker sex.”


A different and disturbingly pervasive type of comments involved sexual objectification—remarks focusing on women’s bodies, often as objects of sexual pleasure. Comments about clergywomen’s legs, breasts, backside, body shape, hair, weight, and clothing were frequent and involved men and well-meaning women. In light of these interactions, it is not surprising that our female participants emphasized the importance of wearing their clergy uniform more than their male counterparts. For clergywomen, their clergy clothes were often the equivalent of an armor designed to conceal the body and protect it from sexual objectification. This type of comment was often disguised as humor, and therefore particularly difficult to counteract. However, these remarks were uniquely damaging because they generally portrayed women in degrading and stereotypical terms.[14]


Other comments emphasized clergywomen’s invisibility. This category included interactions in which women’s role as leaders was ignored or their professional title erased.


Also ubiquitous were comments that emphasized women’s inferiority as pastors: not as competent, not as authoritative, not as effective as men. Sexist language was frequent. Multiple female participants reported being addressed with patronizing or infantilizing names such as “child,” “sweetheart,” “dear,” or, conversely, being labeled as aggressive when they showed assertiveness. A significant number of interactions also involved stereotypical assumptions about genders—that women are soft-spoken, submissive, caring, domestic, or, in negative terms, overly emotional.


While these forms of microaggressions concerned individual interactions, one of the most significant categories had to do with “environmental” messages embedded in the organizational structure and connected to inequalities in the hiring process, salary, and career opportunities. Just like in Allison’s case, an issue frequently highlighted by our participants was the recurrent humiliation of wearing ill-fitting liturgical robes or the inability to find clergy clothing that would suit the female body. In our study, these environmental threats perpetuated clergywomen’s feeling of being somewhat alien and, quite literally, ill-fitting as counter-stereotypical figures in a profession shaped by male stereotypes.


Our participants reacted to these situations in two fundamental ways. The difference between the two is not insignificant for clergywomen’s flourishing, as I will show in my next post.


Manuela Casti Yeagley, PhD


[1]“Key Findings from the Women in the Workplace 2018 Report,” Lean In, accessed March 22, 2021, https://leanin.org/women-in-the-workplace. [2]Scholars dealing with the issue of racism has described unconscious prejudice as “aversive racism.” Aversive racists consciously sympathize with victims of past injustices, support racial justice, and view themselves as unprejudiced. Yet, at a deeper and often unconscious level, they experience negative feelings and beliefs about historically discriminated against groups. For further reference, see Samuel Gaertner and John Dovidio, “Understanding and Addressing Contemporary Racism: From Aversive Racism to the Common Ingroup Identity Model,” Journal of Social Issues 61 (September 1, 2005): 615–39, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4560.2005.00424.x. See also Kevin L. Nadal, “Preventing Racial, Ethnic, Gender, Sexual Minority, Disability, and Religious Microaggressions: Recommendations for Promoting Positive Mental Health,” Prevention in Counseling Psychology: Theory, Research, Practice, and Training 2, no. 1 (2008): 22–27. [3]Angie Andriot and Deborah Coe, “Gender and Leadership in the PC(USA),” Presbyterian Mission Agency, accessed March 29, 2021, https://www.presbyterianmission.org/resource/gender-leadership-pcusa/. [4] Derald Wing Sue, “Racism and the Conspiracy of Silence: Presidential Address,” The Counseling Psychologist 33, no. 1 (January 1, 2005): 100–114, https://doi.org/10.1177/0011000004270686. [5] Derald Wing Sue et al., “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice. (Report),” The American Psychologist 62, no. 4 (2007): 273, https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.62.4.271. [6] According to Sue, “Microaggressions have been found to lead to an array of difficult emotions (e.g., frustration, anger, sadness), as well as to have negative mental health consequences for those who are the recipients of such discrimination... However, most research on microaggressions has focused primarily on racial interactions and has failed to examine the ways that subtle forms of discrimination may have an impact on other oppressed groups, including women” Derald Wing Sue, ed., Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact, 1st edition (Wiley, 2010), 194. [7] Nijole V. Benokraitis, ed., Subtle Sexism: Current Practice and Prospects for Change (Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Publications, Inc, 1997); Janet K. Swim et al., “Everyday Sexism: Evidence for Its Incidence, Nature, and Psychological Impact from Three Daily Diary Studies,” Journal of Social Issues 57, no. 1 (2001): 31–53, https://doi.org/10.1111/0022-4537.00200; Laura Beth Nielsen, “Subtle, Pervasive, Harmful: Racist and Sexist Remarks in Public as Hate Speech,” Journal of Social Issues 58, no. 2 (2002): 265–80, https://doi.org/10.1111/1540-4560.00260; Marla Baskerville Watkins et al., “Does It Pay to Be a Sexist? The Relationship between Modern Sexism and Career Outcomes,” 2006, https://doi.org/10.1016/J.JVB.2006.07.004; Sue, Microaggressions and Marginality, 194. [8]Sue and Capodilupo, “Racial, Gender, and Sexual Orientation Microaggressions: Implications for Counseling and Psychotherapy.” [9]Derald Wing Sue and Lisa Spanierman, Microaggressions in Everyday Life, 2nd edition (Hoboken: Wiley, 2020). [10]Sue and Spanierman, Microaggressions in Everyday Life, 54. [11]Cody J. Sanders and Angela Yarber, Microaggressions in Ministry: Confronting the Hidden Violence of Everyday Church (Westminster John Knox Press, 2015). [12]Kevin L. Nadal, “Gender Microaggressions: Implications for Mental Health,” in Feminism and Women’s Rights Worldwide: Volume 2, Mental and Physical Health, ed. Michelle A. Paludi (Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger, 2009). See also, Sue and Spanierman, Microaggressions in Everyday Life, 197. See also Derald Wing Sue and Christina M. Capodilupo, “Racial, Gender, and Sexual Orientation Microaggressions: Implications for Counseling and Psychotherapy.,” in Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and Practice, 6th edition (Hoboken, N.J: John Wiley & Sons, 2012). [13]Nirmal Puwar, Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place, 1st edition (Oxford : New York: Berg Publishers, 2004). [14] Objectification theory is a framework designed to understand the experiential consequences of being a woman in a culture that often objectifies the female body. Studies suggest that women who report high instances of being gazed at also report viewing themselves on appearance-based terms. More direct objectification (catcalling or name calling) and assaults are connected to adverse psychological consequences such as depression, sexual dysfunction, eating disorders, and body image issues. See Barbara L. Fredrickson and Tomi-Ann Roberts, “Objectification Theory: Toward Understanding Women’s Lived Experiences and Mental Health Risks,” Psychology of Women Quarterly 21, no. 2 (June 1, 1997): 173–206, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-6402.1997.tb00108.x; Kozee et al., “Development and Psychometric Evaluation of the Interpersonal Sexual Objectification Scale.”

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