Two researchers have shown what may seem obvious to many of us: Seeing female religious leaders — and being in a religion that ordains women — has a positive impact on girls.
Benjamin Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin explore their reasoning in a new book called She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America.
Role models matter.
Research has consistently shown that positive adult role models can contribute to the health, education, and overall well-being of young people. Albert Bandura has argued that children learn how to “perform” adult roles by observing the behavior of prominent adults in their lives and trying to imitate it.
Other research has shown that this is especially the case when it comes to learning gender roles. When children see a behavior modeled exclusively by men or by women, they internalize that behavior as distinctly masculine or feminine. The more children see positions of power occupied only by men, the more they come to think of leadership as an exclusively masculine role. As leaders occupy a place of higher social status, this can implicitly generate an association between gender, leadership, and self-confidence.
While it may be intuitive, Knoll and Bolin conducted a nationwide survey to ask people how they were taught about women preachers growing up, and whether the ones who influenced them most were male or female. One of their most surprising findings was that those who grew up with female clergy have higher self esteem as adults.
But that’s not all:
In our survey, at least, the gender gap in psychological and economic empowerment is present only among those whose religious congregational leaders growing up were exclusively men.
To us, this strongly suggests that the rarity of female clergy in America’s places of worship is at least partially to blame for the contemporary gender gap in American society. Increasing the proportion of women in America’s pulpits would not only improve women’s psychological well-being, but would also likely help close the gender gap in the workplace and other positions of societal leadership.
This is encouraging news in a society led by an administration that seems to want women to turn into handmaids of Gilead. It also makes me proud to be affiliated with a denomination that helped break the mold by ordaining women as priests.
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