Gender and Diversity at the Society for the Study of Theology: A Response to Marika Rose

This blog post is a response to Marika Rose's blog post "Where Are All The Women?", and I address Marika as "you" throughout, but I thought it was worth publishing in its own right - partly because it's too long to be a blog comment, and partly because I think other people might be interested to know about discussions on gender and diversity taking place within the Society for the Study of Theology and beyond.

As a current member of the SST executive committee, and the person who convened the Gender, Feminism and Theology seminar there at which Mathew Guest presented, I wanted to respond to your blog post to clear up what I think are some misapprehensions.

Robert Song, one of Mathew Guest’s co-authors on the "Gender and Career Progression in Theology and Religious Studies" report, approached the Society some months ago to draw our attention to it. We agreed it would be important to give the report and some discussion of it a high profile at the SST annual conference. Robert Song and Mathew Guest submitted a proposal, which went forward for inclusion in the Gender, Feminism and Theology seminar. The third co-author, Sonya Sharma, was unable to attend the conference to present with them, which is why her name does not appear in the programme. After the programmes were printed, it transpired that Robert would also be unable to attend, so in fact only Mathew presented on the findings.

Usually, seminar papers would be given a single 40-minute slot. However, as the convener of this seminar, I felt that it was important to give it a double slot, to ensure that there was time for broader discussion of the report and its implications for the Society than could take place within a normal single slot. This was the reason for the arrow in the programme running across two slots, indicating that the paper and discussion would cover a double slot. During the SST annual conference, there are a range of seminars which run year to year, most of which meet twice during the conference. You will have noticed from the programme that the other Gender, Feminism and Theology session this time contained two papers, both given by women: unfortunately, a third presenter, also female, had to drop out after papers had been accepted. There was in no way a conspiracy to exclude women’s voices from the seminar. Nor, as has been suggested to me, was it the case that a “panel” on gender and career progression was put together which contained only men.  Rather, Mathew and Robert jointly proposed a paper, which was accepted. It was a paper, not a panel. It would have been rather odd to tell them that they could not present on their own research because they were men. The Gender, Feminism and Theology seminar is certainly not a “women-only” space.

Unfortunately, despite having put the seminar together, I was unable to attend SST myself because I learned the day before the conference that I would have to go into hospital for surgery unexpectedly. I received an e-mail from Mathew the same day noting that he would like to invite a woman to respond to his presentation, which I said I thought was an excellent idea. I was sorry not to be there to join the discussion myself. I think your reading of the situation (“So I was there as a token woman: not because I was particularly qualified to talk about the issues, but as a less-than-ideal attempt to solve a problem that wasn’t even noticed by any of the conference organisers until someone else pointed it out to them”) is rather confusing.

Now on to some broader issues. SST as a Society is already aware of some of the gender imbalances in the Society and at conferences, and is taking steps to address them. For example, feedback from conferences over the last few years indicated that, whilst most delegates to the annual conferences felt welcome and included, women and postgraduates felt slightly less welcome and included than others. As a result, two years ago the Society began to hold a women’s reception early in the conference, as well as the first-timers’ reception and general conference reception, in order to give women (whom, as you note, are usually in the minority at SST annual conferences) a chance to identify one another, and meet and talk to committee members in a slightly less overwhelming setting. 

Partly in light of discussions following Mathew’s presentation on the "Gender and Career Progression in TRS" report, and partly as part of a general programme of aiming to increase equality, diversity and accessibility within the Society, SST has also undertaken other initiatives. Some of these have already begun to be implemented, but there is still more work to do. In the short term, SST has increased the number of women who are invited to the conference as plenary speakers, with a view to achieving gender parity among those who accept invitations (unfortunately, many women have declined invitations in the past). For 2016, the SST committee has determined that 3 out of 5 plenary speakers will be women.  SST is piloting a “buddy system” for first-timers at the conference, in order to minimize the “cliquiness” that newcomers have sometimes experienced there. SST has committed to further discussion of the "Gender and Career Progression in TRS" report, and reflections on how responses are being implemented, at next year’s conference, and these will take place at a time when there are no parallel activities timetabled. Longer term, there are discussions taking place about how the Society might be of service to women within TRS disciplines in Britain – particularly those in departments where there are few or no women in senior roles. This might mean, for example, setting up a mentoring scheme to provide support to women in TRS at key transitional and career points.  

As you note, there is a broader set of questions about gender balance within particular theological subdisciplines. Historically, systematic theology has indeed been largely male-dominated. This may be part of the reason why there are relatively few women academics who regularly attend the SST annual conference (the mix tends to be about 25-30% women and 70-75% men, which maps onto the proportion you noticed among short paper presenters). However, I am aware from my own conversations that there are also women in TRS in the UK who make a point of not going to SST precisely because they themselves feel it is not somewhere they have an interest or investment in. Sometimes, unfortunately, this is because they have been made to feel unwelcome in the past. Sometimes it is because of things they have heard from others – and sometimes based on reports from many years ago, not necessarily reflective of the situation today. Sometimes they have suggested that smaller conferences with different themes are more conducive to what they want to do. As a convener of the Gender, Feminism and Theology seminar for the past three years, it has been encouraging to see the creative work that is taking place by presenters of various genders there. I must admit that it is frustrating to speak to women who do identify as systematic or constructive theologians but do not want to present papers or contribute to discussion at SST: whilst I understand and respect their reasons, this also perpetuates the gender imbalance of the conference and may tend to perpetuate the idea that women do not "do" systematic and constructive theology. 

I am not attempting to be an apologist for SST or for TRS as a whole. Indubitably, the kinds of inequalities and imbalances Mathew, Sonya and Robert identify in their report are present in our discipline. I know as well as anyone that senior academics, male and female, are not always aware of their privilege at conferences and elsewhere, and that this can lead to others feeling, and being, marginalized. However, I am proud that SST as a society is taking steps to improve things at its own conferences and to take seriously the challenge of thinking through its responsibility to addressing issues of gender and other inequalities in the discipline more broadly.


  1. Thanks for taking the time to respond, Susannah. You’re right that SST are taking tangible steps to make the conference more inclusive; I probably should have given a bit more detail in my original post about the context of the session, which was precisely a discussion about how to tackle the issues highlighted in the report we were discussing. That’s really commendable, and I’m glad that SST is so committed to becoming better.

    Again, perhaps I should have clarified that I was invited to speak at the last minute by Mathew Guest and not by SST as an organisation. But unless I have misunderstood, it remains the case that I was invited because the issue of gender representation at the double session was raised late in the day, and it remains the case that I was invited not because I was especially qualified to talk about the issues but because I know Mathew. It wasn’t SST’s decision to invite me as a token woman, but I do think that’s the role I played (although I wouldn’t have agreed to do it if I hadn’t felt like I could make some useful contribution in that role, and if I hadn’t felt like a token woman respondent was better than nothing). What I posted was more or less what I said in my original response, so I don’t think Mathew would object to that characterisation.

    The session Mathew spoke at wasn’t the only session that dealt with questions of feminism and gender. I don’t think those discussions need to be had exclusively among women; I don’t object on principle to men presenting in those contexts. But I do think that at the point it was decided that the double session would be set aside to discuss the report, and when it became clear that Sonya Sharma would be unable to attend, someone should have noticed that there are problems with a double session on women’s inclusion in which the only official presenter was a man. It wasn’t just a paper within a series of papers - you rightly recognised that the issue was more serious than that. I don’t doubt your good intentions in planning the session, but surely a discussion about women’s exclusion from academia ought to take seriously the need to include and foreground the voices of women?

  2. Are you familiar with St. John Paul II's "Theology of the Body"? It is a theological anthropology that transcends both traditional patriarchy and extreme forms of secular feminism. Via what he calls "the spousal meaning of the human body," it may provide a solid foundation to resolve some vexing issues of human sexuality, including the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Let us pray that all the Christian churches will be able to discern the difference between patriarchal ideology and revealed truths, and act accordingly.

  3. Hi, Luis, and thanks for your comment. I do know John Paul II's Theology of the Body. Whilst it has a lot going for it, I think I'm less persuaded than you are about the usefulness of the image of the spousal meaning of the body. For one thing, it rests in an account of gender complementarity which still renders women subsidiary - even if this is not the intention. For another, it still seems to elide or write out non-binary body-stories, including those of people whose physical sexes or gender identities differ from the female-feminine and male-masculine model. In particular, some intersex people, and many transgender and genderqueer people find it difficult to see where they fit into this picture of creation.

    You may enjoy reading the thoughtful discussion about this that has gone on over at the Women In Theology blog:


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