Movement Day: Is this Christian conference marginalising women?
Another day, another Christian conference. This one describes itself as 'born out of unity with a dream to see the physical, social and spiritual transformation of our towns and cities'. Which sounds great. Unity is an interesting concept and one much discussed among Christians. Does it mean all should agree in words and actions? Centuries of councils, edicts, heresies, and state executions of priests and monarchs (not so many recently) suggests that's not likely. Christian unity could come from people who share Christian faith accepting they see things differently but can set things aside for the greater good.
And yet. A scan through the website of Movement Day UK shows a unity of a different – and yet sadly familiar – shape. Instead of unity of all kinds of Christians we see... a lot of men. Of 55 speakers advertised on the website, 43 of them are men. Unity, therefore, has been agreed predominantly between the menfolk. And most of them are white, too.
There is a specific strand for women. It's called 'Women in the city' and has a photo of an uncertain-looking young blonde woman in a corporate setting. The content, though, seems to be more general. Three women are listed as participating in a stream which will cover topics including 'the opportunities, pressures, challenges and facing women in our towns and cities' (off the top of my head, walking home safely at night and not being paid less for being female would be on my list) and 'the opportunities and challenges and facing Christian women in their towns and cities and within the local church' which may actually be very similar to the things facing women in general – except there's probably less debate about modesty.
The strand asks the question 'How can churches better support, disciple and release women to serve in society?' and one obvious answer is not to sideline them at events like this. It's not empowering overall to put women in a room at an event purporting to be for the transformation of all of society and hope they encourage each other when the event itself marginalises them.
Why are they expected to talk among themselves and fix problems they haven't created when the main action is happening elsewhere? This is, of course, a society-wide issue and not just a Christian conference one. Why else would RADA be able to charge women £1850 + VAT each (and let's not forget that pesky pay gap already sapping their income) to show women how to overcome the fact they spend their careers in a 'workplace dominated by men and often the expectation, and requirements of 'macho' behaviours' and still succeed?
The issue is that the Church should be better than this. It should be a model of a more equitable way. It shouldn't be a place where women need to push themselves forward to be heard, as they were told at a recent event in New York (where the last Movement Day gathering was also held, as it happens). An all-male panel convened at a PR industry conference informed the women in the audience to 'speak up' to drown out the – here's that word again – 'macho culture' of their workplaces, rather than expecting that culture to change.
Which leads on to the final question in the women strand at Movement Day UK: 'How can women better network and support each other in order to see greater kingdom transformation across our towns and cities?' Well, they already are. There are several networks and regular events bringing women together to learn from each other, develop friendships, and build support. Gathering of Women Leaders is one, the Women in Leadership network is another, and there are events like the Stepney Diocese 'Her' gatherings. Women do these things to support and build each other up already, and part of the reason they need to is the limitations of mainstream Christianity. Giving them a room at an event that expects to make the impact Movement Day does suggests the organisers aren't really aware of what could and should be different.
Movement Day isn't an event arising from a particular theological position that believes women should only function in certain roles. In ethos it is an event that should be open to all equally and representative of diversity, a reflection of creation and the kingdom. And yet, here we are with all male line ups for the 'Business' stream of the event, and a total of 12 women out of 55 speakers advertised so far.
As part of Project 3:28 – another women-initiated collective to help overcome the inevitable conversations when conference organisers are challenged on these kinds of ratios and need help finding women speakers – we hear many responses and none are satisfactory. It seems to be an on-going blind spot and one that needs to be mentioned whenever it is spotted, but wouldn't it be nice if it didn't have to be? If we could get to a point where organisers not only had good enough networks to know more brilliant women speakers than they had space for, but that they saw for themselves that their programmes were unhealthily unbalanced if they were male dominated for no logical reason?
Can we one day get to a point where women aren't tucked away to discuss why society struggles with them and can instead be welcomed and celebrated for their achievements and contributions to say... business? And events would be incomplete without their contributions? Just a thought. (If it's a chair shortage issue maybe a couple of the chaps in the business track could stand or even stand down to make room?)
Then, instead of Groundhog Day maybe it would genuinely be Movement Day. And there's still time. Organisers, you have months before the event goes ahead. What movement will we see before then?