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Project 3:28 have just published their report into the gender balance of speakers at Christian conferences in 2015. This is an important project, and one I’ve written about before. On the occasion of their annual report, I thought it was worth thinking through why their work is significant, and reflecting on the patterns which might be emerging.

On a sociological level, Project 3:28 provides a salutary check-up of how gender equality is going in one particular part of British Christian life. As any researcher into gender will tell you, it’s only when data is produced and scrutinised that people are challenged to face injustice or prejudice. Particularly when those people are invested in the idea of being welcoming and just.

Relying on our own gut feeling can be misleading, as experiments into the gender balance of lecture halls which felt “full of women”, or surveys of the representation of women in literary magazines, or gender patterns in corporate hiring, dramatically demonstrate. Having empirical data helps identify whether there are forces at work which aren’t obvious to those involved.

On a theological level, Project 3:28 focuses on a central aspect of the Christian tradition in which the majority of British conferences are rooted. Evangelical Protestants have always had a particular concern with speech and hearing, stressing the power of the word and its effect on listeners. It is a kerygmatic tradition, one which believes strongly in the potential of Christianity’s message. Indeed, The Message is the name of one of the Biblical translations which came out of this tradition.

In paying attention to the speakers at conferences, Project 3:28 is not arguing about who gets the most press coverage or who is aggrandized most, but holding conferences to account by their own principles. The strong emphasis on “teaching” the Bible as a central practice within Christian life, and of Biblical “teaching” as a theological resource, means it is valuable to be reminded whose voice is being heard, and who is involved in that activity of teaching.

Likewise, the historic importance in British Evangelicalism of revivals, conferences, parachurch organisations and networks outside (and alongside) formal ecclesial structures, means that Project 3:28 are measuring what matters. These events are not only highly valued in people’s spiritual lives, they provide the matrix within which a lot of Christian activity and organising goes on. However, because of the combination of pressure in managing a big operation and the event-based (rather than institutional) nature of conferences, I imagine it can be easy to overlook the need for this kind of data, or to write off inequalities as “just who was available this year”.

Conferences, and the gender balance of their speakers, might also act as a proxy measure for some other gendered dynamics in churches and Christian organisations. Since they are event-based, they often involve travel, unusual expenditure, arranging childcare and other logistical issues, and thus these numbers might bring to the fore questions of who carries out what work in Christian groups. Who is regarded as worth sending to a conference, who is assumed to provide support, who is identified as a leader whilst they are young, who can plausibly represent a group – these questions tend to have a gendered component in most British organizations, and I expect the same is true in Christian circles.

Moving into the results of the report, there are some patterns which might be worth considering. As the report notes, there are some caveats about numbers: Greenbelt point to female representation beyond the major speakers, for example, and smaller events can have their percentage balance drastically skewed by a couple of speakers. Nonetheless, the overall balance is 64% to 36%, a large majority – even predominance – of male speakers.

This varies across the conferences, with some obvious influences from the theological profile of organisations. The low rating for Hillsong and Keswick is hardly surprising, given the former’s commitment to newer forms of complementarian teaching about gender roles, and the latter’s connection to conservative Evangelical thought.

Soul Survivor and Greenbelt might (broadly speaking) be assumed to represent a more consciously “progressive” mode of Evangelical practice, and a more liberal mode respectively. The Baptist Assembly’s position at the top of the table presumably has a strong connection to its early adoption of women’s ordination, when compared to the Church of England for example. Clearly theology is not the only factor in play, but it can have a major influence.

Two conferences were notable for having more female speakers than male (which therefore shifted them down the equality rating): The Youthwork Summit and Church and Media Conference both had more women than men on the stage. Though this is obviously encouraging, it seems likely that these are areas in which women’s greater representation is more possible. Put bluntly, media (especially new media, the conference’s previous title) and youthwork are susceptible to a certain amount of gender stereotyping as women’s work.

That’s not a reason to criticise their ensuring that women are fully represented, merely a caveat that there may be a gendered pattern here too. I saw a suggestion on Twitter that the relatively large numbers of women speaking at these conferences suggests a hopeful prospect for the future, since new media and youthwork are both focused on young people and the future. This doesn’t strike as evident, since there is a long history of ministry to young people being a “safe” area for women to exert their efforts without challenging larger gender dynamics. I hope I’m wrong, though.

Finally, there is a shift in the overall rating – it is 1% more equal than last year, which was 9% more equal than the year before. Too early to talk about trends or slowing improvements, but it is certainly true that Project 3:28 is causing conversations about gender inequality in crucial areas, and challenging organisations to consider their own role in perpetuating it. The project does not simply seek to capture data, but to influence the discourse and ultimately cause change in what it is measuring.  I’d say it’s having a signiicant impact.

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