“As a woman you will need to think about what your position is when it comes to women in ministry!”
This sentence during a lecture shocked me. I had never really thought about women and ministry as contradictory terms, until then. It opened my eyes rapidly to noticing and shortly after also experiencing gender-based discrimination.
Since then I have also had very liberating moments and experiences. I am privileged to work for a charity called Time For God where I lead and facilitate the growth and development of the organisation. Within, Time For God I have been given opportunities to develop personally, and over the course of 8 years, my career has taken me from supporting international volunteers and placements in the UK, to being Team Leader, to becoming Programme Development Manager. I am now responsible for recruiting new placements, developing overseas opportunities for our sending programme and building new partnerships nationally and internationally; requiring much cross-cultural sensitivity. My gender has not been an issue within Time For God and I am grateful for that.
Yet, I work with partners around the world, especially the Asian context where gender is a key issue. It can be challenging as a woman to build partnerships in patriarchal societies. One thing I had to resolve for myself is to respect cultural norms whilst holding my own personal values. At times this has meant that I did the ground work and then took my male director with me to meet people. Other times it’s been through “passing on greetings” from the Director that I’ve been accepted as a woman.
What has become apparent when working overseas is that it’s usually not just a matter of gender. It is also a matter of ethnicity. The combination of the two can be toxic. A white male junior employee in Hong Kong will be listened to when he disagrees with the Chinese female Principal, because of his gender and ethnicity – unlike his Chinese colleagues. With that comes a responsibility to be aware of privilege and to actively seek to empower those around.
It is in these contexts that we offer volunteering placements for 10-12 months for women and men from the UK. Volunteers, aged 18-30, work alongside school staff and teach English. It’s simple, in many ways, but so effective when it comes to challenging stereotypes, gender expectations and ethnic boundaries. The schools are Christian schools and families send their kids to the schools because they are the best in the area. UK volunteers, women and men, make a difference by being present, being Christ-like, working together in mutual support and respect, whilst supporting the youngest in society.
One of our volunteers writes:
“My experience in Hong Kong has really highlighted the connection between different forms of discrimination. … I think the greatest factor, which protects me from gender-based discrimination in the workplace in Hong Kong, is the fact that I am white; white members of staff, myself included, find ourselves placed up on pedestals and treated with immense privilege. We are considered to be a kind of exotic breed; if your school has white native Anglophones from the Global North, it is considered to be offering a better quality of education than if it did not. … [Noticing gender-based discriminating behaviour in her white male colleagues] I have attempted to call their behaviour out, to draw their attention to their abuse of this culturally constructed power imbalance. … I am optimistic that situations like this can be stamped out! But I feel to do this, we need to address the fact that sexism and racism are intimately linked … and that to challenge a culture of insidious, low-level misogyny, you need to simultaneously challenge a culture which awards a greater value to “whiteness” than it does to any other ethnic group. The struggle to end workplace discrimination has to be intersectional. No struggle exists in isolation and thus to end gender-based discrimination, you must set out to eradicate racism from the workplace as well.”
No matter how advanced a society is there is always more that can be done. I see volunteering as one small step in challenging gender-based discrimination and showing an alternative way.
Susann Haehnel has worked for international volunteering charity Time for God for 8 years and is the Programme Development Manager. She is passionate about local church being at the heart of community life, and is involved in leading women's ministry and worship in her church in Oxford, UK. Having recently completed her Masters in Professional Practice and Practical Theology, she loves to read, think and talk about all things to do with Theology and Cross-cultural adventures. For more information on serving with Time For God in Hong Kong and other places visit, http://timeforgod.org/go-overseas