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Interview with Emily Jones, Imago Dei Fund

Holding Up a Collective Mirror to Christian-based Organizations:
How do we compare with other sectors in working toward gender parity?
Where do our policies and practices run counter to our larger humanitarian goals?

Gordon College recently had an opportunity to interview Emily Nielsen Jones, co-founder and president of the Imago Dei Fund, about the forthcoming “landscape” study that measures the gender gap within evangelical ministries and organizations. (To learn more about Emily and the Imago Dei Fund, click here.)

Emily JonesGC: What motivated you and your organization to begin exploring this issue of gender equity?

Most ideas have many antecedents that bring something into being. The most basic impulse behind this study is simply that we are in a special moment of time, one where gender equality has the global limelight, not so much in an ideological, political sort of way but more, from a practical, human and real institutional sort of way. How do we move beyond merely good intentions to achieving the ideal of gender balance? This I do believe is the work of our generation, in large part because everywhere we look, it seems, studies are making the case that gender balancing our institutions is “not only the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do.”

On a humanitarian level, there is also a heightened awareness that the gender imbalances of our world have had dangerous consequences. Yet with a massive global effort to place the empowerment of girls and women at the center of poverty alleviation and global development, it is indeed an exciting and hopeful time for girls and women—and for humanity in general. There is so much global momentum happening not only to raise the floor for women but also to raise the ceiling. Many believe we may be at a tipping point for gender equality to become more fully realized in our world.

But let me go back a few years to describe the philanthropic backdrop to the genesis of the study. At the Imago Dei Fund, we had been engaging in the anti-trafficking movement for a few years and had developed a pretty good network of Christian groups/organizations that we had begun to partner with in this global work of combating modern-day slavery. In 2009, we began the Imago Dei Fund with a rather broad spiritual vision of supporting and cooperating with "movements of God" promoting justice and wholeness in our world. For good reasons, anti-trafficking rose to the top of our list. That slavery still exists in our world as a lucrative and growing global business, one that is shocking to our modern sensibilities. It seemed intriguing to us that this movement is catalyzing people across religious, cultural, and ideological lines to roll up our sleeves and work together to rid our world of such a heinous violation of human dignity.

Like many, we found ourselves peeling back the layers to contemplate how in the world slavery could still be so prevalent in our 21st century world? Increasingly, we became more awakened to the gendered realities of trafficking: over 80 percent of trafficking victims are girls and women. And slavery is just the tip of the iceberg on the continuum of enslaving, of cruel and eerily normalized forms of gender-based violence and human rights violations in our world.

After a couple years of anti-trafficking related grant-making, we decided to try to “go upstream” as they say in philanthropy circles and strive to more intentionally address the root causes that make girls and women so vulnerable to being treated as a commodity, bought and sold and bartered like cattle or a plot of land. That’s when our board formally decided to integrate a “gender-lens” into our grant-making. What this meant in practice was that in all of our interactions with partner and potential partner organizations, we would have gender on our radar and start by asking the simple question: how are you working toward gender balance in your own organization, the programs you run or by extension, the world?

As we begin to look at how this problem manifests in places across the globe, we see a complex web of both economic factors and cultural ideas and practices which diminish the worth of females, making them vulnerable to being treated as a "lesser than" class of humans beings. As a person of faith, I could not ignore the religious dimension of this devaluation of females that exists all over the world. There is an undeniable reality that religion all too often still advocates ideas that prop up male power over females and contribute to the idea from birth that girls are destined to be limited and confined to a subordinate place in society. This looks different everywhere, but at its root it is fundamentally the same whether it comes in Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Jewish or other religious form.

GC: In what ways did using a “gender-lens” change the direction of the Imago Dei Fund? How did it change the way you do your grant-making?

ENJ: For me personally as an activist, using a “gender-lens” helped me to more formally connect all the dots between the invisible level of ideas that create a pseudo gender caste system around the world and the more visible humanitarian gender ills that plague our world. The “elephant in the NGO” is that faith-based organizations are often speaking out of both sides of their mouths when it comes to women. I think I just arrived at a point of clarity that until religion gets fully and unambiguously on board with gender equality, progress will continue to stall out, even go backwards, with regards to women’s progress towards realizing their basic human rights.

As a faith-inspired foundation, we became increasingly perplexed by what I call “evangelical gender in-congruencies. Many organizations and ministries we fund or partner with, on the hand, are jumping onto the anti-trafficking bandwagon to promote freedom and equality in the world and to rescue girls and women from slavery—which we, of course, commend. Yet on the other hand, many of these same organizations still maintain disempowering, diminishing gender ideas and practices which can make girls and women vulnerable to a host of abuses or devalued as second-class citizens.

I grew up in an evangelical setting, and have been very familiar with this sort of gender role ideology that affirms women’s human equality yet still circumscribes women to a “role” at the margins of decision-making. Nonetheless, I was always inspired by the culturally radical way Christ treated and honored women as well as Paul's proclamation in Galatians that in Christ, there is no distinction between slave and free, male and female, Jew and Gentile. So at this stage in my life, I have become increasingly aware of, and distressed by, how some religious-based ideas are contributing to the dangerous mix of cultural ideas, norms and humanitarian problems which continue to wreak havoc on the bodies and souls of girls and women around the world. That’s primarily why our foundation began more using a “gender-lens” to guide our decisions.

As a result, we have become more intentional and deliberate about asking questions regarding implicit and explicit gender policies both within an organization and out in the field, questions such as:

  • What ideas, if any, around gender guide and shape your work in the world?
  • Does your organization have any explicit policies around gender that limit what women can or cannot do within your organization and out in the field?
  • How have you been working (or not) to promote gender balance within your organization?

Basically, what we’ve started to find is that many evangelical organizations, even those doing great work for girls and women in the world, have some sort of hidden or “de facto” institutional practices which either explicitly or implicitly (or both) keep women from serving in leadership roles or advancing above a certain level in the organization. Yet by simply asking these questions, we have discovered that many organizations do in fact want to be more gender-balanced and realize that this is central to preserving their Christian witness in our world, but for a variety of reasons this just has not been a priority. That’s when we began to find our philanthropic “niche” in the world: we strive to encourage organizations to work a little bit harder to connect the dots between their faith-based ideas around gender, their institutional practices, subculture, and their humanitarian goals of working to create a more just and equitable world for girls and women.

GC: What kind of issues have you discovered in this process?

ENJ: I’m not sure you can have it both ways. Can you, with integrity, be working to combat the plight of girls and women around the world in places like India and Cambodia while holding onto religious ideas or practices that don’t empower women within your own organizations, or bar them from serving on your leadership board or assuming leadership roles at all levels? From my take on things, those women on the other side of the world actually want more than just to be rescued from abuse and enslavement. Once their basic human security is established, they want what each of us want: they want dignity, equality, agency, and the freedom to chart their course in life so that they may in some way add value to our world. They do not want to be confined to a role or a “rung” in an org chart!

Using the analogy of slavery, could we really claim to be an abolitionist in the 19th century if we were still advocating ideas that black people were morally and intellectually inferior to white people? That they shouldn’t be whipped, chained and forced to pick rice for a master but that they shouldn’t be allowed to vote or hold certain offices or dare to dream to become the president or to lead an organization?

Yet, discovering these types of double standards has helped me to ask the Lord to help us see where we have blind spots! Give us eyes to see. Help us to see each person as fully human, as an image of God, created with the same intrinsic desires and longings, regardless of what gender or race or group we are born into.

Very often, it is our angst along with our ideals that sparks our activism in the world. For me, as I continue to hold onto faith in faith as a force of goodness and justice in our world, I remain perplexed and yet determined to help bring out the higher side of our faith tradition that unambiguously supports the full humanity of women as Christ did. It impels us to work together to create a more just world where all human beings can thrive and live together in harmony and mutuality rather than in hierarchy and domination.

GC: How did the idea for the study go from being just one more good idea to becoming a reality?

Yes, lots of ideas remain just good ideas. From the beginning, this idea seemed to be one of those ideas that might just have wings to fly. Gender equality is such a relevant topic today throughout so many sectors, but particularly within the field of development and philanthropy, both of which are agents of change to create a more just world.

As we continued to use our “gender-lens,” asking faith-based organizations and ministries we have partnered with about their policies, we became increasingly troubled by this strange contradiction. As I’ve said previously, it’s difficult to advocate for equity around the world for females when our own policies don’t reflect the same commitment.

As Aristotle said, “Ideas have consequences.” Religious ideas exert a considerable influence on our collective human psyche and can be used to promote high ideals like justice and peace and equality, but also can support unjust cultural practices that prop up certain groups over others.

So the original idea for this study emerged in a gender-focused advisory committee I had convened to help our foundation think more strategically about how we could move the needle forward within the faith-based charitable sector in which we found ourselves. I’ll admit that I came to the meeting with a particularly acute dose of “gender angst” around a relatively new campus ministry we had funded on Ivy League campuses, one that does not have any women on its board of trustees and does not allow women to go above a certain level within the org chart of the organization. How could it be that at many colleges, where most women come and presume the doors of the world are open to them, there are still new ministries that do not allow women to advance into leadership positions, yet seek financial support from donors who presume a more gender-balanced approach to leadership? Many donors, by the way, are parents who likewise presume that their daughters will have an equal standing in any college or ministry in which they participate. And how could it be that some campus ministries are very engaged in the anti-trafficking movement, seeking to help women and girls enslaved around the world, and yet perpetuate the same diminished view of femininity that makes women vulnerable to human rights violations and enslaving conditions?

So in what I hope was “holy angst,” our original idea was to create some type of "gender scorecard" to help all the stakeholders of faith-based charities/non-profits (staff, board members, clients, potential donors) look at their own internal policies to see where there are gaps or inconsistencies in order to set goals for how to make tangible incremental steps toward greater gender-balance.

But the idea meandered around for a year or so and evolved into more of a “gender landscape” study to get a broad snapshot of where evangelical social services and charities stood with respect to gender balance. The idea would have remained just a good idea if it were not for a very engaging and fruitful conversation over dinner with Gordon’s President D. Michael Lindsay and his wife Rebecca, which led to the idea of the study launched with Gordon’s Provost Janel Curry and the new Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at Gordon.

GC: What do you hope the study will accomplish?

What really can a study like this really do? We debated this. There are so many well-intended studies and reports that sit and collect dust; there are also many compelling, more hands-on programs that need funding. We ended up deciding to fund and co-launch the study mostly because we found a fabulous partner in Gordon College, a leader in the evangelical world, that along with other institutions—like those represented on our advisory board—is part of a quiet movement to work from within our faith traditions to create a more just, gender-balanced world.

My gender-lens on the world in this particular moment-of-time tells me that if things are not moving forward, they can easily slip backwards for women's equality. We do see many regressive gender movements in our world and sadly, often from religious voices. In fact, I’m somewhat disheartened by all of the churches and ministries in my own city here in Boston, that we’ve supported yet have sort of hidden policies which exclude women from leadership and/or which turn a blind eye to subtle forms of discrimination which marginalize women. But I also have been encouraged to see a few organizations that are intentionally trying to work from within and without to create a more gender-balanced world.

I do believe that the larger River of Life is flowing toward justice, but that we all need to do our part to work a little harder at changing deeply rooted ideas and institutional practices which compromise our own capacity to model an ideal of gender that honors both masculine and feminine as images of God. Debra Spar, the new president of Barnard College, wrote well recently about how women lead differently than men, a reality that is good for organizational health and well being, and I would add, for honoring the spiritual complementarity of men and women:

“We need women in leadership positions not only because they can manage as well as men but because they manage differently than men. We need them because they tend—over time and in the aggregate—to make different kinds of decisions and bring different ideas to the table. We need women who will approach risk from a different perspective, who take an altered view of time and conflict, and who understand diversity as something more than an abstract theory. We need women who operate as managers, not just as employees or critics; who are as competitive for themselves as they are for their children. And we need more men to recognize that having women around the table isn't just a nice thing to do. It makes for a better table." Source >>

GC: What do you hope is accomplished from the study?

My simple hope for this study is that it would fuel the positive gender winds of change blowing in our world today and that it will serve as a collective mirror to help Christian stake-holders see where positive change is happening in our organizations as well as where obstacles persist. Awareness of “what is” is an important part of the process of change, of “what could be.”

That is the basic purpose of the study: to step back and see how we measure up as a faith-based sector with regard to the larger social goal of working toward gender parity within all of our organizations and workplaces. Sometimes simply seeing what is with one’s eyes wide open can be a catalyst for seeing what can be.

We hope to put a spotlight on a set of best practices that are working in the field, so as to make incremental steps toward more gender-balanced organizations. We also hope the study will give validation to people working within their organizations and stake-holders who are influenced by these organizations to keep on asking the good questions. We’re holding up a mirror to where our organizations might have blind spots or are falling short of the ideal of full human equality of men and women as co-image bearers of God. As Jesus once said, those who have eyes to see, let them see.