Sexism at Bethel?

April 11, 2013 | 11 a.m.

News | Greta Sowles

Sexism at Bethel?

Some wonder whether sexism exists at Bethel.

Sexism is a deep-rooted issue explicitly addressed in the Bethel Covenant for Life Together. In fact, the Covenant says, “We view racism and sexism as sinful and reflective of some of the most harmful aspects of our culture.” Although sexism is addressed in association with racism, some in the Bethel community wonder if sexism receives less attention.

AnneMarie Kooistra, associate professor of history, recently posted an issue related to sexism on the c-faculty online forum. In the forum post, Kooistra mentioned that a particular female student had received an outspoken lack of respect from a male peer in response to her recent acceptance to various graduate programs at prestigious universities.

Prior to this incident, Kooistra had heard stories from other female faculty members who felt a lack of respect in the classroom because of their gender.

“It was a different thing when I had a specific incident from a student I knew,” said Kooistra, who could not speak more highly of the student. “Whenever someone that I care about gets treated with no respect, that’s very problematic.”

Christina Busman, a female professor in the biblical and theological studies department, experienced similar instances of sexism as a Bethel undergraduate looking to study further at either Princeton Theological Seminary or Yale Divinity School. Busman’s continual frustration stems from the fact that she has had to deal with situations of disrespect from both colleagues and students at least once a semester. “I think sometimes it’s often not malicious, but it doesn’t make it okay,” she said.

Kooistra’s c-faculty post prompted over 50 faculty responses, beginning a conversation about the issue of sexism and how it subtly plagues Bethel’s campus. Rich Sherry, assistant to the president, immediately responded with the suggestion that this particular instance posted on c-faculty was an issue of bias. A formal complaint can be filed anytime an individual feels as though something has been said to him or her that violates the Covenant. This includes both sexism and racism.

According to Kooistra, the major drawback of such an action is that the student who files the report may feel like he or she is unable to continue to work and play in his or her social environment.

The forum post also activated discussion of gender roles, both in society and in the church. “There should be some discussion about how we are going to make sure that even if there is a diversity of opinions, the individual woman here still feels respected in the role that she has,“ added Kooistra.

Christian Collins Winn, biblical and theological studies department chair, has dealt directly with sexism in relation to the role of women in ministry. “The sexism issue in the BTS context is treated differently because the issue over women in ministry is usually the lens through which the discussion happens,” said Winn.

Winn affirmed that in the hiring process for the BTS faculty, the egalitarian view of women in ministry, which states that men and women can have identical roles in ministry, is a requirement. While the faculty may be collectively egalitarian, they have encouraged conversation and discussion from opposing views.

Kooistra also added that dealing with an issue like sexism takes a certain amount of finesse because it can cause a tricky situation. “These are men and women who need to learn to play together as much as they are to learn together,” she said. “Calling attention to issues of gender sometimes can make those relationships quite difficult.”

To improve the institutional response to sexism, Kooistra suggested focusing on bringing glory to God through learning and academic excellence. She also suggested having a recorded anonymous line where students could talk to trusted faculty members about sexism-related issues. “I think there still has to be some kind of documentation so we know what problems we are experiencing and how to address them,“ she said.

According to Winn, a more robust response to sexism is required to make large steps forward in the process of ending it. “If 60 percent of the student body is women, we are sending the wrong message to them by not affirming fully that they can go where they feel God is calling them,” he said. Winn suggested that Bethel should take a written and verbal  stance for egalitarianism.

While Busman agreed with the idea of taking a stance, she encouraged the integration of egalitarianism, rather than simply making a statement in support of the position. Additionally, Busman suggested using the model of how racism has been talked about and integrated to take steps forward to end sexism at Bethel.

Busman has felt affirmation and support from the leadership at Bethel, but she is also adamant about putting a stop to sexism. “People in our community are being hurt, and I think that should move all of us,” she said.

“Part of the redemption process is bringing to mind this idea that we are all created in the image of God; therefore, we need to treat people with respect,” Kooistra added. “That would be a great step forward in general.”

Schulze's study

Edee Schulze, vice president of Student Life, presented her gender dynamics study and findings at the Moberg Conference Saturday, Feb. 23. The purpose of the study was to help understand the Bethel experience of female students, both in and outside the classroom. While similar studies have been conducted, Schulze was interested in understanding how being a faith-based institution would compare to previous studies of secular institutions.

Basing her study on Hall and Sandler’s “The classroom climate: A chilly place for women,” Schulze borrowed the term “chilly climate” to explain “the subtle ambiance in which many small inequities can create a negative atmosphere…Although many instructors and students feel that they are free from sexist prejudice, each holds entrenched beliefs of which she or he may not be fully aware.” Schulze said that this could take the form of professors or students yielding to stereotypes, excluding women, giving women less intellectual encouragement or defining women solely on sexuality.

Three of the major findings of the study concerned gender identity development, tensions regarding gender roles, and the perceived roles of men and women. To read more about her findings and study, look for the published article in Growth: The Journal of the Association for Christians in Student Development this July. Schulze will also be presenting her research on April 18 from 10:15 to 11:00 in the Eastlund Room.

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