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Where are all the Priscillas?

Monday, 29 September 2014  | Cheryl McCallum

The past forty years have seen a surge in the number of women engaged in formal study at theological schools. The Australian New Zealand Association of Theological Schools (ANZATS) does not collect enrolments by gender data but the American Theological Schools (ATS) 2013 statistics reveal women comprised 34% of total enrolments in theology programs in North America. It is likely that Australian statistics would show similar results.

With so many women studying theology, we might assume a similar percentage of women are employed in teaching positions in theological schools. This, however, is not the case: in 2006 women held just 22 percent of full-time faculty positions in North American theological schools.  

To get a feel for the Australian scene, I sampled twelve Australian colleges offering theological education awards and looked at the faculty lists on their websites. I chose colleges from a range of denominations, some were non-denominational, and five different states were represented. I found, almost identical to the North American scene, that in this group of colleges, women comprised 23 percent of the total faculty (183 people), although there was no way of determining if all of the positions were full-time. None of the colleges employed more women than men: the highest rate of women was 43 percent and the lowest was zero.  

I was surprised to note that there was a marked difference in the level of qualification of the men and women: only 33 percent of women teachers had doctorates compared to 61 percent of male teachers, and women comprised just 14 percent of the total number of faculty having doctorates. In this small sample, women were less likely than men to be teaching systematic theology; only one woman was listed to teach leadership, and the greatest numbers of women taught biblical studies. 

So where are all the Priscillas? Why are there so few women with doctorates teaching theology in Australia? Indeed, why are so few women teaching theology? I would suggest there are two main reasons for this: one has to do with the lives of women and other is theological.  

Firstly, women undertaking advanced theological studies often find themselves juggling a number of balls in the air. Having children with the accompanying, dominant expectation of primary responsibility for child-care means many start doctoral study later in life. Study is often in a part-time capacity making scholarships less likely, placing additional pressure on earning income, accomplished usually by sessional teaching or part-time church work. Men tend to enter the professional track earlier in life with the financial and domestic support of a partner. Women with dependent children are more hesitant about accepting full-time work than their male counterparts. Many of the women who begin their theological studies later in life after raising children are not seeking a career as a theological teacher. 

In addition, women will tend to wait until they are fully qualified before applying for a teaching position whereas men tend to apply and gain a position and complete their studies while working. The end result is women applicants have no experience and few positions to apply for. Some women are reluctant to engage in ‘selling’ themselves in a competitive space: research suggests women applicants downplay their abilities whereas men tend to exaggerate their abilities to perform a role. Additionally, research indicates groups recruit to preserve homogeneity and therefore a predominantly white, male culture will recruit white males. 

The second, and often unacknowledged, reason for lower numbers of women in theology faculties is theological. Some colleges in Australia have long held a complementarian theology that interprets passages such as 1 Timothy 2:12 to prohibit women from teaching adult men; most particularly, instructing in theology. In America, this stance can manifest in only permitting women teachers to have women in their class or, in the extreme, suggesting a commentary written by a woman should only be read by men if the woman is not present. While some Australian colleges are open regarding their theological position regarding women teaching theology, others are subtler in their approach. It is telling that none of the twelve colleges I randomly chose was led by a woman; all were led by white males.  

If you attend a gathering of theologians in Australia you will find it comprises predominantly white, older males many of whom will retire in the next ten years. Who will take their place? Younger, white males? Greater numbers of qualified women?  

An increase in the numbers of women teaching theology and leading in theological schools will only happen through deliberate and insightful recruitment strategies. If we believe women have a vital part to play in educating the next generation of Christian leaders we must act accordingly. Women students need role models of women who are using all of their gifts to extend the kingdom of God.  

And, by the way, only seven percent of faculty members in the colleges I looked at are of a non-white ethnic background. That’s another story…


Cheryl McCallum works at Tabor Victoria where she enjoys leading, teaching and encouraging staff and students.




Gordon Preece
September 30, 2014, 9:47AM
Well said Cheryl. You're a great model and advocate for women in theological ministry. And what a kicker of a last line, the only thing worse than our sexism is our racism, maybe that's why we've allowed women to teach in the developing world where the numbers of women missos probably well outnumber those of men. Also on the issue of non-PhD women. I can remember raising this and the need for talent-scouting and scholarship etc 2 decades ago, but there is little far-sighted effort to reduce the obstacles women face.
Darren Cronshaw
October 6, 2014, 9:45PM
Thanks Cheryl.

I wonder did Charles Sherlock's book Uncovering Theology show a breakdown of theological students by gender? I thought the proportion of women students was more in Australia balanced than the American figure of 34%. But I know the church is lagging behind in giving opportunity to women in ministry, and colleges (in general) are lagging further behind.

For women faculty in our theological schools, I suspect that if you take out part-time (and adjunct) roles, the disparity is worse. You made an appropriate appeal for targeted recruitment. I reckon part of why this is important is not just for a balanced ratio and equal opportunity for women, important as that is, but so all our students, women as well as men (and especially the chauvinist, I mean complementarian-leaning students) can benefit from the input and perspectives of women teachers.

The same goes for the culturally diverse faculty you allude to. I was surprised you found 7% faculty of non-white ethnic background. I looked a few years ago and could hardly find any in Victorian colleges, except for Chinese faculty teaching Chinese Chinese language courses. But to prepare culturally intelligent and culturally aware ministers (in the broad sense of that term), students needs mentoring and input from culturally diverse teachers. Please tell the other story too :)
Brian Edgar
October 9, 2014, 11:56AM
I've bad news for you, Cheryl. :)

You say that, "If you attend a gathering of theologians in Australia you will find it comprises predominantly white, older males many of whom will retire in the next ten years."

Well I reckon you might find these older males are a bit obstinate and won't retire.

And these days, the anti-discrimination law being what it is, its very hard to give them a push!

It is quite possible for those approaching that category ("older theologian" - mea culpa) to persuade themselves that their thinking is still as good as ever - and maybe even wish that they had understood as much thirty years ago as they do today!

75 may become the new 65.

And why not?

Sue Edmondson
February 23, 2015, 11:53AM
I suspect that the questions of who leads, who goes on committees, what a good Christian woman does at the levels of local church, presbytery/diocese, or at a Christian organization or school, underlies this area of thinking, aspiration and planning. Colleges who prepare women for work in cross cultural, school or aid situations have a lot to answer for when such women come under pressure because of the inevitable responsibility they have to take without a sense that it is right for them to take it. Silence or lack of articulation of their stance on women in ministry is unfair of these colleges at the very least.

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