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Responding or not responding to sexism: clergywomen's dilemma (and its consequences) | 2

In a work setting, choosing to be assertive may cost hiring opportunities or jeopardize the viability of women’s position as congregational leaders. Articulating a calibrated and productive response requires an often instantaneous calculation of negative and positive consequences. Unfortunately, research on marginalized groups shows that this constant suppression effort inevitably takes a heavy psychological toll on victims. How to respond?



Everyday sexism is particularly hard to eradicate. It is rooted in subtle and often unconscious forms of prejudice connected to a larger socio-cultural environment. Furthermore, differently from overt manifestations of sexism, microaggressions are often tolerated and minimized. Yet, “given the research on subtle sexism, the psychological impact of gender microaggressions can potentially be felt just as deeply as encounters with blatant and overt sexism.”[1]


Despite their harmful potential, microaggressions do not always rise to the legal level of harassment and cannot be reported to a relevant structure. This situation leaves women largely in the position of fending for themselves. They are simultaneously victims, judges of the offense, and dispensers of pastoral care. These conflicting positions make it particularly challenging for them to respond assertively.


Key finding: our research highlights the critical role played by training interventions aimed at enhancing women’s awareness of these subtle expressions of prejudice and their ability to confront them. The ripple effect of this type of training is often considerable. In multiple cases, participants who were able to identify the covert nature of these interactions were also able to stop the aggression by enacting disarming strategies. Furthermore, their response often opened productive opportunities for dialogue with their aggressor/s. These clergywomen also functioned as models for other female colleagues, staff members, and female lay leaders.


A large percentage of clergywomen—approximately one out of two—responded to microaggressions in non-assertive ways. They worked hard to prevent potentially threatening situations, and they withdrew and avoided actual aggressors. This situation highlights the dilemma clergywomen face. Assertive responses are not always possible. In a work setting, choosing to be assertive may cost hiring opportunities or jeopardize the viability of women’s position as congregational leaders. In a highly relational profession like ministry, articulating a calibrated and productive response requires an often instantaneous calculation of negative and positive consequences. Unfortunately, research on marginalized groups shows that this constant suppression effort inevitably takes a heavy psychological toll on victims.[2] Our female interviewees often had to hide their authentic thoughts and feelings to avoid further discrimination and labeling (such as being “too emotional” and “oversensitive,” or worse). A study of girls and women showed that this process leads victims to “self-silencing,” a dynamic that has been linked to “compromising women’s success by heightening feelings of alienation and reducing motivation.”[3]


Possible responses to this situation may include training to help women manage their emotional response to these threats and cultivate psychological resilience. These interventions are necessary and helpful, but they do not prevent the problem from repeating, with the inevitable toll everyday sexism involves.


Consequently, our findings strongly highlight the need for a problem-focused approach.


Key finding: Our findings strongly highlight the need to multiply efforts to promote clergywomen’s awareness of the dynamics I have described. They also underline the importance of learning and rehearsing how to assess a microaggression's implications and choose from a range of possible responses. In this sense, the few existing seminary classes targeting this subject (generally open to women and men) point in the direction of a promising strategy.

Our study also suggests further but relatively unexplored avenues of intervention connected to allies’ and bystanders' roles. During their interviews, clergywomen highlighted the critical role colleagues, staff, lay leaders, and church members can play when they take an active role in stopping microaggressions. Disarming prejudice—be it focused on gender, sexual orientation, age, race, ethnicity, and disability—takes an entire community of intentional helpers.


Research on prejudice emphasizes the importance of training targets, allies, and bystanders to enact “disarming and dismantling” micro-interventions.[4] These strategies have been tested and developed by grassroots organizations. They aim to bring subtle prejudice to the surface and confront it in productive ways. This type of awareness and disarming training could help church organizations create an “activist culture” among allies and bystanders (male clergy, lay leaders, and church members). These strategic actions could lift the burden of everyday sexism from women’s shoulders and radiate outside the church.


In my next post, I will explore strategies to disarm and dismantle micro-interventions. These strategies express different levels of assertiveness, depending on the context and the relationships involved. Furthermore, they can be adapted for the use of victims, allies, and bystanders. Learning how to recognize sexism and disarm its expressions may provide a possible “everyday” approach for religious organizations to support clergywomen and other targeted groups by intentionally promoting an activist culture among clergy, staff, and lay leaders.


Manuela Casti Yeagley, PhD


[1] Sue and Capodilupo, “Racial, Gender, and Sexual Orientation Microaggressions: Implications for Counseling and Psychotherapy,” 105. [2] Capodilupo, “Microaggressions in Counseling and Psychotherapy,” 132; Anderson J. Franklin, From Brotherhood to Manhood: How Black Men Rescue Their Relationships and Dreams from the Invisibility Syndrome, 1st edition (New York: Wiley, 2002). [3] Bonita London et al., “Gender-Based Rejection Sensitivity and Academic Self-Silencing in Women,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 102, no. 5 (May 2012): 961–79, https://doi.org/10.1037/a0026615. [4] Derald Wing Sue et al., “Disarming Racial Microaggressions: Microintervention Strategies for Targets, White Allies, and Bystanders,” The American Psychologist 74, no. 1 (January 2019): 128–42, https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000296. The article has attracted intense interest by a wide range of popular media outlets, including the New York Times, see Hahna Yoon, “How to Respond to Microaggressions,” The New York Times, March 3, 2020, sec. Smarter Living, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/03/smarter-living/how-to-respond-to-microaggressions.html.

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