Changing the Rules of the Game
All her life Kitty had moved hand to hand forward, lightly holding on the line strung between signposts of a woman’s life. … A woman was meant to tend a child, a garden, or a conversa-tion. … What Kitty learned at Miss Porter’s School – handed down from Sarah Porter through the spinsters teaching there, themselves the sisters of Yale men who handed down the great words, Truth. Verity. Honor – was that your brothers and your husbands and your sons will lead, and you will tend. – Sarah Blake, The Guest Book
In 2011 I became the academic dean of Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, MA, after serving six years there as a faculty member. Daunted by our school’s precarious enrollment and financial situation, and aware of the challenges of a new administrative role, I decided to look to leadership books for guidance. I scanned the shelves in the management section of a bookstore in Harvard Square, seeking a title like, How to Be a Seminary Dean at the End of Christendom. No luck.
I did stumble across another book, the first few pages of which had me laughing so hard I had to sit down in the aisle to catch my breath. Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers by Lois P. Frankel (Warner Books, 2004) is a self-help book for women managers who want to avoid the habits that bump them up against the proverbial glass ceiling. It includes a series of tips that I started to skim, only to realize that I had made two of the first ten mistakes in my first week on the job.
Mistake one: Do not feed people, as you are not their mother and do not want them treating you like her. I had brought snacks to the first faculty meeting I chaired. Mistake 2: Do not set up your office like a living room. The same day that I found myself on the bookstore floor, I had asked that the conference table be removed from my office in favor of a coffee table surrounded by comfortable chairs. After drying the tears of my laughter at life’s abundant ironies, I bought the book.
Winners and Losers
As many self-help books do, Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office includes a self-assessment. I scored relatively well on most categories, dodging some of the worst sorts of self-sabotage for which women are known. I fared badly, however, at what the book defined as “playing the game.” Evidently, I am the type that does not like to admit that leadership is often like a game, with winners and losers. I understand leadership to be a process in which a leader guides a community – sometimes past obstacles – toward faithful service and witness. I take on conflict when doing so is necessary for my organization’s mission, not for sport.
This past summer, upon the retirement of Martin B. Copenhaver, I became the first woman at Andover Newton to serve as senior executive of this historic theological school, which was founded in 1807, and is the oldest US graduate school of any kind. Andover Newton left Massachusetts to become embedded at YDS in 2017 and adopted the name Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School. My appointment as founding dean of Andover Newton Seminary coincides with the 150th anniversary of women at Yale’s graduate schools and the 50th anniversary of women in Yale College. Yet because of my overwhelming desire to block out anything game-like about leadership, I am loath to declare victory on any of these fronts. I learned in a conversation with my mother about writing this very article that my resistance to discussing the topic of becoming a first-woman leader for a historic institution can be traced back to my early childhood.
“The Woman Card”
My mother reminded me of ways in which my family – my father, in particular – stood up for women but never liked it when they played “the woman card.” I was trained from an early age to act as if my gender simply does not matter in settings where gender is not directly relevant. Taught to pretend it did not matter, I never learned a language for talking about my womanhood in general, or sexism in particular. When the topic is my faith, my values, my tastes, my preferences? I could talk about those endlessly. But talking about being a woman in leadership suggests playing the woman card. Playing a card is something we do in a game. And I evidently do not like to admit there is a game, let alone play it.
The history of women at Andover Newton suggests a slow, nonlinear arc of progress toward leadership, two steps back for every three steps forward. Women were welcomed at both predecessor institutions1 earlier than other male-oriented seminary settings for one reason: Both educated missionaries. Women who were going overseas as missionaries with their husbands were permitted to sit in on classes in preparation for their missionary service as early as 1894. Women were admitted to degree programs focused on religious education beginning in 1925. Soon after, however, men started shying away from educational programs intended for missionaries because of a feared “feminization” of the field. Because women were allowed, the logic went, the field must not be all that elite or exciting.
In the 1950s, as doors to ordination opened for women in mainline traditions, women’s numbers started dwindling in the master’s degree programs intended specifically for them (in this case, religious education) and the seminary’s pre-ordination program of study newly open to them. This pattern of women’s flight was not unique to Andover Newton but rather pervaded mainline seminaries of that era: Without a niche degree, women had to compete in a men’s game, which they often and inevitably lost.
In the 1970s, the United Church of Christ partnered with Andover Newton to study what was at that time being called “the women problem,” where women would experience a call to ministry and start seminary, but soon thereafter leave the church altogether. What that study uncovered was this: The elusive, mystical certainty of the call that drew women to seminary was frequently crushed by the realities they discovered upon matriculation. Scholarly engagement with the history of misogyny in the church, coupled with the contemporary sexism of their classmates and professors, disillusioned women to the point of dropping out. Only in 1971, which happens to be the year I was born, did Andover Newton hire its first tenure-track woman on the faculty – biblical scholar Phyllis Trible. Nearly 50 years later, here comes the first woman at the helm.2
A recent Pew study reveals the latest irony around the issue of American women’s capacity for leadership. Whereas both men and women express their conviction that women are just as capable as men in the areas of business and politics, “women still make up a small share of top leadership jobs in both of these realms.”3 Maybe this disconnect has something to do with playing “the game.” To move from competence to success requires some strategic maneuvering that many find distasteful in women. Women labeled ambitious are considered schemers, whereas ambitious men conform to societal expectations that they play to win, and they are admired for it.
So what are we to do? What will lead us into a new reality, where women are present in leadership at rates that reflect their share of the population, in numbers that align with an overwhelmingly strong public trust in their abilities? Indeed, it is surprising that Andover Newton has never had a woman serve as its chief executive, considering its longstanding embrace of women in ordained ministry. But the problem underlying the disconnect is not that there is a man whose presence is creating an obstacle at the top. Pushing men out and replacing them with women is not the answer. And placing a woman in the chief leadership role of any institution will not be enough to rewire an entire cultural system that expects women to tend while men lead.
Coming back to that self-help book: As founding dean of Andover Newton Seminary at YDS, I had the option of moving into President Copenhaver’s office upon his retirement, a corner office in the Quad at YDS. I decided to keep the one I have, which overlooks Prospect Street and the Great Hall, and from which I can see and greet the students and guests who come to visit Andover Newton. I did ask, however, that the office be remodeled to give me more space. Carving out a new space works better for me than adapting to the current or historic one. Maybe we need to do the same thing with “the rules” of “the game.”
Sarah Drummond ’93 B.A. is founding dean of Andover Newton Seminary at YDS, associate dean at YDS for congregational ministry, and adjunct professor of ministerial leadership. Ordained as a UCC minister, she holds an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School and a Ph.D. in urban education from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is the author of three books, Holy Clarity: The Practice of Planning and Evaluation (Alban, 2009), Leading Change in Campus Religious Life: A Case Study on the Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation (Scholars’ Press, 2011), and Dynamic Discernment: Reason, Emotion, and Power in Change Leadership, newly released by Pilgrim Press.
1 Andover Theological Seminary was a Congregational school that broke off from Harvard in 1807. Newton Theological Institution was a Baptist seminary founded in 1825.
2 See Margaret Bendroth, A School of the Church: Andover Newton Across Two Centuries (Eerdmans, 2008).