Reviewing Gender and Career Progression in Theology and Religious Studies by Michele Stopera Freyhauf

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Abstract from the Study:  The low proportion of women within the subject areas of Theology and Religious Studies has long been observed, and is increasingly recognised as a serious problem for staff and students. In this new study, Mathew Guest, Sonya Sharma and Robert Song chart patterns of gender imbalance among staff and students across UK Theology and Religious Studies departments, exploring why such patterns remain so persistent. Drawing on interviews with Theology and Religious Studies academics across the country, the report examines the professional life of female university staff, and makes recommendations for how universities might address the inequalities of opportunity and practice that emerge.

The Report can be found at this link:

While this report focused on UK institutions, it is an important study for this field of study and did garner feedback outside of the U.K.  Some of the findings that may be of interest:

  • Females outnumber males at the undergraduate level in theology and religious studies (60/40).  When moving to the taught post-graduate level, the proportion of female students drop to 42%, and at the post-graduate research level (Ph.D. program) another drop to 33%.
  • Women make up 29% of academic staff in the field of theology and religious studies.  37% amount early career academics and lecturers, 34% senior lecturers, and only 16% amount professors.
  • Comparing the field of theology and religious studies to other disciplines across the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences reflect the same trajectory of gradual female withdrawal in tandem with academic progression.  The drop-out rate seems to be more dramatic in theology and religious studies, especially between the undergraduate and taught postgraduate levels.
  • Structural factors influencing this pattern include the tendency of theology and religious studies departments to recruit postgraduates from international contexts in which a form of Christianity that favors the authority of men is prominent.
  • Interviews with academics in the field reveal additional factors which include entrenched connections to Christianity and Christian churches, the gendered style of academic engagement in some of the sub-discipllines, and the up-hill struggle to develop the confidence to succeed in a male-dominated environment.
  • Generic issues include poor allowance for childcare and family responsibilities as well as bullying.
  • Advisors have a profound effect as well as interaction with the faculty.
  • Often, women are pressured to perform better than their male counterparts in order to stand out from the other female candidates.
  • Gender stereotypes that work against “women’s entrance and mobility” in academic jobs, especially those related to leadership positions.
  • Collegiality focused on “male sociability”whereby women’s ideas are suppressed or they find themselves on the margins within their departments.
  • Being the lone voice or scapegoat in the department for “women’s issues.”
  • Studying stereotypical topics and migrating away from traditional “male” disciplines.

An explanation of the above findings can be explored further in the report.

For some who are reading this, no surprise – you live this daily, as women in the academy.  For students, like myself, the obstacles can be daunting.  Traditional programs do not want you, or even discriminate against you; non-traditional programs cost exorbitant fees but become the only option to pursue your dreams.

However, as the report points out, there is some evidence of change, that I am happy to be a part of.  As a person focusing much of my work in the Hebrew Scripture, an area incredibly under-represented by women, the academic society of SOTS [The Society of Old Testament Studies] welcomed me as a student scholar.  I had the opportunity to attend my first meeting in Oxford, and found the experience collegial, inviting, and fulfilling.  I did not sense a difference in treatment at either my status as student or woman. In EGLBS [Eastern Great Lakes Biblical Society], the organization has become like family.  The scholars are willing to support you, provide feedback in your presentation and work, and do so without harsh and critical judgment.  Finally, there is SBL [Society of Biblical Literature], which last year invited me to serve on their Student Advisory Board as a member-at-large.  The one resonating theme with all three of these organizations is mentorship.

I think report reinforces this point.  The role of mentors can set you on the right path towards a job, if they are willing to invest in you.  I have been fortunate in my course of study to have three of the greatest mentors:  Sheila E. McGinn, Natalie Kertes Weaver, and Gina Messina-Dysert.  Having their constant support, whether it is reviewing my work, collaborating on a project, or just being a shoulder to lean on or a cheerleader – has been an important factor in my studies, career, and life.

So while this study is important and sheds light on some of the problems – some which are already known to so many of us either in the academy as Professors or working on completing our Ph.D. – I think it is important to remember that blogs and networks like this can help build community, mentor, and hopefully support each other in such a way that maybe, just maybe, we can see a positive change for women in the field of theology and religious studies and in the academy overall, sooner rather than later.


Michele Stopera Freyhauf is a Doctoral Student in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and a Member of the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University as well as an Instructor at John Carroll University’s Department of Theology and Religious Studies. Michele has an M. A. in Theology and Religious Studies from John Carroll University, and did post-graduate work at the University of Akron in the area of History of Religion, Women, and Sexuality. She is also a Member-at-Large on the Student Advisory Board for the Society of Biblical Literature and the student representative on the Board for Eastern Great Lakes Biblical Society (EGLBS). Michele is a feminist scholar, activist, and author of several articles including “Hagia Sophia: Political and Religious Symbolism in Stones and Spolia” and lectured during the Commission for the Status of Women at the United Nations (2013 and 2014). Michele can be followed on Twitter @msfreyhauf and @biblicalfem. Her website can be accessed here and is visible on other social media sites like LinkedIn and Google+.

Categories: Academy, Feminism, Gender, General, Women and Scholarship, Women's Agency

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

5 replies

  1. Thank you for illuminating this deplorable situation. It is a crucial topic. I was lucky to have attended university in the 1980s when women’s studies was flourishing and I had women mentors who believed in me. But the current dynamic of sidelining strong women’s voices is grim, indeed. A similar dynamic is silencing women’s voices on internet debate and various web discussion sites.


  2. I am an independent scholar, not currently involved in academe, but I rely on some very fine women mentors just the same, and the support at FAR is absolutely invaluable.


  3. I found it interesting that many of the non-structural hurdles discovered in this study were directly related to patriarchal Christianity. I’d been hoping that this was changing (I guess reading FAR has made me overly optimistic), but maybe it just takes a LONG time. Thanks, Michelle, for reporting on this.



  1. Reviewing Gender and Career Progression in Theology and Religious Studies | Michele Stopera Freyhauf

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