Monday, December 7, 2009

Stories of Women in Leadership

At the 2004 Parliament of the World's Religions in Barcelona, there was real concern that the voices of women were not being heard. Presentations and panels were too often male dominated.

This time around, at the 2009 Parliament in Melbourne, there have been far more women on panels and also a wealth of programming related to the role of women in religion. It is fascinating to listen to the stories of women from diverse traditions as they struggle with patriarchal systems. Almost every religious tradition on the planet is going through a process of gradually including women fully in leadership roles. It is a necessary if sometimes painful evolution.

Dr. Linda Lyman, of Illinois State University, is one of the dynamic women leaders presenting at this year's Parliament in Melbourne. In her interactive workshop, "Personal and Professional Journeys of Women Leaders: A Worldwide Dialogue," Dr. Lyman told the stories of twelve women of diverse nationalities, ethnic heritages, and family backgrounds who all became significant leaders in the field of education. She then skillfully identified the common threads in their stories, how they survived economic hardship, cultural bias, glass ceilings, and balancing family with career to forge strong and meaningful professional lives.

In the small group interaction following her presentation, one could feel the resonance of these stories with the women in the room. Whether Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, or Jewish, women immediately understand these stories and feel both the pain and the inspiration. Their journeys embody many of the same themes. Many of the participants expressed their heartfelt thanks to Dr. Lyman for telling these stories and encouraging other women to stay on the path toward full equality in religious leadership. Even the men got the message too.

There is a different feel in the workshops being led by women. Feelings are honored, stories are told, connections are quickly made. It is not that men cannot do these things. We can, but our experience is often that women lead us in these paths with great skill and sensitivity. We all need these qualities in our communities, and we need them at full strength and with full empowerment.


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