Thursday, October 08, 2009


I've been thinking for a while about this idea of 'having a woman on the committee so that we get the women's point of view' - this is from the church context (I'm not sure if my thoughts would apply to government). The thing is that if there is a committee with five men and one woman, operating in a democratic climate, is that woman really a voice? Because she is in a minority on the committee, and because she is likely to be less forceful than the men, it is really unlikely that her voice is going to be heard. So I have been thinking that if you are serious about the women's voice, you need to have the committee 50/50.
But now there are other voices that need to be heard. The major voices are those that are racially described. Because gender is a 50/50 thing, we can put 50/50 on a committee without too much trauma. But race is not a 50/50 thing. Even just simplifying the issue to black and white - white people, at least in the leadership structures of the Methodist Church, are way in the minority. And the question needs to be asked - what should be done to keep hearing the white voice? (Assuming of course that one wants to do that!) At the moment, many white people still have the advantage of a superior education and they make their voice heard, but that advantage will hopefully fade away as all people are better educated (again hopefully!)
In a local church society that is predominantly white, but wants to hear the black voice, how is this done? I really don't think that having a black person on the committee is going to do the trick.
I believe that we need to come to understand that a voice will be only heard when it has equal representation to the other voices - otherwise the majority will tend to rule.
So we need to determine the voices that we want to hear. Gender, yes. Race, yes. Age (both young and old -say 50/50 under and over 40 years). But which races? And do we include ethnicity? What about liturgical preference?
This is a challenge, but I believe that we would do best to have all committees 50/50 on gender. Equal split between black/white/coloured depending on the area and equal split between over and under 40 years. I think that would be a very interesting thing to do!


markpenrith said...

What's the committee for? What matters do they think on? What do they decide? Who are they representing?

If the single focus of the group’s decisions about social equity and gender relations then spend much time hitting the balance between race and gender and all other manner of demographics. But if the group's focus is spiritual shouldn’t the criteria by which it’s constituted be primarily spiritual?

I’m sure this isn’t far from your mind but I’m wondering how this plugs into a “representative” model?

John van de Laar said...

Truth be told, I'm not sure that "representation" ever makes a group more just/effective/intelligent. I believe that to achieve what you're seeking requires a change in attitude within the dominant voices. The change is simply this - learn to value the divergent voice. This is a basic principle in organisational intelligence. It's a tough shift to make, but if we really seek to be more effective, it can and will be done.

Once we've recognised that it is the divergent voice that makes us more effective and intelligent, then even a single person from a different background, viewpoint or group can have a significant voice in a meeting or committee - because we value and recognise their contribution that much more highly.

Perhaps this is an idealistic view, but it's one I strive for whenever I can, and I've seen the power of putting it into practice.

For what it's worth.

Thomas Scarborough said...

Hello Jenny,

However, what does education have to do with representation? It's the Spirit who qualifies one for representation (so we would say in our Church, and I think we genuinely act on this).

Our Church is in the position of having exactly 50:50 men/women, and exactly 50:50 Black/White on the leadership, and we didn't try hard to achieve it -- although that in itself might be a misrepresentation of the community!

There is -- so it is said -- a Biblical principle that the weaker person or group should be given special honour and priority in the Church.

Jenny Hillebrand said...

Mark - I would guess that you minister in a much more homogenous situation than that found in the Methodist Church. I agree with you, but the thing is that our spirituality is expressed in the context of our culture. There is nothing that is 'acultural'.
John - I agree with you completely as an ideal. And - it may well be that the MSCA committees do work in this way. I might be making wrong assumptions here.
Thomas - if you are referring to my reference to education, what I mean is that black Africans are sometimes afraid to speak up in a large group because they feel totally inadequate compared to the better educated people - especially when the medium of the meeting is English and they are not confident of their own fluency. Thus the white minority has an advantage - but I think it would prefer not to keep that particular advantage.

markpenrith said...

Hi there,

I think you might be correct. We've got the oddest split in our congregation (economic, social, racial even national) but we gel well. I think it might be because we're very distinct theologically.

We're not perfect though and have this exact discussion from time to time.

What excites me about what you doing and thinking here Jenny is that you're giving thought to the big questions and their practical outworkings, never mind how difficult that may be. That's great!

Steve Hayes said...

That sounds to me uncomfortably like the apartheid mentality is still with us.

I remember the Nat canvasser coming to see us to urge us to vote in the referendum for the tricameral parliament. He spent the entire afternoon (good, stopped him canvassing others).

He found it almost impossible to understand what my objections were. I did not want to vote for a white House of Assembly because I did not think "whiteness" was my most important defining characterisic. The whole system was devoted to brainwashing people into thinking that racial identity was the most important thing about us that must govern everything else.

Concerning sex: I don't think having a single female in an all-male group is generally a good idea. There would be a kind of expectation that that woman represented the female point of view, and thus be restricted. But do the males represent only a male point of view? No, they are surely, in a church group, to try to discern God's will for the community, the WHOLE community. And so should the women members, who should be there on the same basis oas the males -- because they have a particular gift or talent or insight or something to offer.

Jenny Hillebrand said...

I agree with you that it sounds a bit 'tricameral', but at least we are not talking about 'own affairs' here. I have learnt some very interesting things working in the Eastern Cape within the 'black' church, but I am reluctant to put them in writing just yet. Let's just say that Julius Malema has many, many people like him in the church. On the other hand there are many people in the mould of Nelson Mandela.
I agree with you 100% that race shouldn't be an issue. BUT within the Methodist Church, there exists the 'Black Methodist Church' - where membership is determined by . . . race.
As far as gender goes I've learnt to stop wanting to hit people who encourage me to 'speak up because I'm a woman' (I'm quite able to speak up on my own merits, thank you) because I realise that there are genuinely many black women who feel that they are not entitled to speak.
I'll blog more on this as I get my thoughts in order!