19 May 2022

The difference between aspiration and commitment 

Bishop Genieve Blackwell believes setting gender quotas could work to bring in more women into positions of power to parishes. Picture: Anglican Diocese of Melbourne YouTube.

Bishop Genieve Blackwell 

25 April 2022

Are quotas or targets the best way to achieve increasing the numbers of women in charge of our parishes? The clergy legislation bill to come before our next Melbourne Synod will include provision for Archbishop in Council to set a target. However, I believe setting a quota could work, and that it is important we give the idea serious consideration. It is the difference between an aspiration and a commitment. The wisdom will lie in how to go about introducing quotas. 

The current stagnating or decreasing trend in the numbers of women in charge of parishes suggests a new approach is needed. The problem with setting a target is that it relies heavily on incentives for what is essentially an internal process. Targets have been shown to take a long time to be realized, and so as an aspiration are ineffective in driving cultural change.  

I understand the key issue with quotas is their mandatory nature – so, how would that translate into our setting? Would a parish be forced to have a vicar who was a woman? No. I am arguing for a quota for recommendations to the archbishop rather than appointments. Those arguing for quotas have no desire to force a recommendation made by a nominating committee.  

Translating quotas into our setting will be further enabled by two things.  

Firstly, balancing any quota with flexibility for achieving it across the diocese. It varies greatly as to how many names are considered in each nomination process. The assistant bishops lead each nomination committee and work with the archbishop as a team, sharing potential names for consideration. There are already parishes at both ends of the theological and ecclesiological spectrum who do not agree to women in charge of a parish (or in episcopal leadership). This has always been handled informally rather than formally in Melbourne, underlining the continued need for flexibility to minimise rather than accentuate these differences. 

Read more: Gender quotas abandoned in favour of non-binding targets, cultural change

Secondly, we need to set a percentage quota as a starting point for the life of the next synod, which is three years. For example, we might say at least 25 per cent of representatives will be women. This would be very doable given current numbers and allowing three years to meet the quota. We could then gradually increase the quotas every synod, so every three years, to an agreed level.   

What we can learn from quotas is the commitment to change coming from the other characteristic quotas introduce – accountability. Examples from the government and corporate spheres show that public reporting of and tracking of outcomes leads to more effective and timely change. We could do this through our annual synod reports. We could also, and more publicly, report and track through an independent body as well, such as we see with the government-run Workplace Gender Equality Agency. 

Together, synod and government reporting would make us more effectively accountable. 

Rather than replacing genuine discernment, a quota system would enhance discernment by encouraging us to search more creatively and expansively, and commit to overcoming unconscious bias. 

A quota would not operate in a vacuum. There are currently a good number of women coming through the ordination stream in Melbourne. The numbers of men and women at different stages of the journey are close to equal. Increasing numbers of women in ordained leadership in our parishes will encourage the pipeline and vice versa.  

Other policies and strategies can help to overcome unhelpful roadblocks, real or perceived, to women seeking parish ministry and leading a parish as their pathway. The evidence from corporate and government sectors suggests that increased numbers of women will also in turn positively impact diversity overall. 

Increasing the numbers of women leading parishes is a complex matter. A variety of strategies are needed given the serious and systemic roadblocks that exist. Quotas can play a key role in remedying past discrimination and increase diversity, far more effectively than targets. Their implementation may cause some discomfort, but organisational change is never easy and it is a price worth paying for the benefits of the gifts women bring. Let’s commit, rather than just aspire, to increasing the numbers of women leading our parishes. 

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