5 Tips for Women in Higher Education Religious Programs

Michaela Weller
In obtaining two religious master’s degrees, I navigated not only lectures, assignments, and exams, but also a male-dominated field of study. Within many programs in higher academia, sexism is a reality women face, but women in religious MA or PhD programs tend to experience additional prejudice caused by a historic and present male-dominated field of study and religious beliefs regarding the role of women in the home, church, and society.

Over the last 4 years, I have gathered advice on how to make it through religious higher education as a female, and here are my 5 tips:

1.     Focus on your primary goal, the degree.
2.     Find your advocates.
3.     Ask if sexism is institutionalized or an individual issue?
4.     Build support networks among your peers.
5.     Assume your right to be in a religious program.

1. Focus on Your Primary Goal - the Degree

In most subject areas in religious curriculum, a quick glance of its history reveals a male-dominated field, including male biases and negative assumptions of the female gender. It may feel as though only men are allowed to study your subject. But when you focus on your primary goal, the degree, it is easier to disengage from people and classes that promote sexist ideology.  

In one course about history of religion, I was the only female in a class of male peers, a male professor, and history lessons about only male individuals, except one female who was the feminist studies representative. In an incredibly isolating situation such as this, it is vital to focus on the degree and not the class. By acknowledging the reality of a male-dominated study, your focus can be learning the class material, working for the grade, and disengaging from the female discriminatory realities of the classroom.

Higher education is a season of life, and the outcome is the degree. Though enjoying every class and having your voice taken seriously would be ideal (you are paying a lot!), the degree is your aim, and sometimes, it is about getting through the course and disengaging from the rest.

2. Find Your Advocates

Advocates are people in high places of influence who have your best interests in mind. One of my advocates informed me of institutionalized sexism and advised a different school. He told me that the institution refused to hire female professors. Each faculty member, all who were male, had a vote on potential hires, and over half refused to allow women to teach religious courses. I was able to leave the institution because my advocate had insider’s knowledge.

Advocates have your best interests at heart, and though they are not perfect, they can provide encouragement, mentorship, and practical assistance to help you through your religious program.

3. Ask if Sexism is Institutionalized or an Individual Issue?

Institutionalized sexism differs from an individual’s sexist beliefs. The first institution I attended kept women from teaching religious courses. The second university I attended had individuals who did or did not support women. For example, I met with one professor, and he told me, “You should really consider your view of the role of women before entering this master’s program.” He was an isolated case among the many professors who supported women in all capacities.

Before applying to a MA or PhD program, consider the ratio of male to female professors in your program, and look holistically at institutional tendencies not individual faculty member’s beliefs.

4. Build Support Networks among Your Peers

Your classmates and you already have a lot in common: your coursework. Through creating study groups, you can also gain emotional support as you continue in your religious MA or PhD program. My support group started with a weekly study group that moved into confiding common experiences, and I realized, I am not alone!

Others encounter similar hurdles. Investing in peer relationships can improve your studies and lead to emotional support. As women often have more child, home, and caretaking responsibilities, an online platform may be the best way to meet, build relationships, and gain support in your MA or PhD program. 

5. Assume Your Right to be in a Religious Program

When you are the only female in a classroom or the course content comprises of only male authors and study, it is common to feel imposter syndrome. Instead, a few simple action steps can help yourself and others understand that you belong in your program. Here are a few examples:   
  • Get to the first class of a course early and make physical space for yourself in the classroom by spreading out your books, opening your laptop, and ensuring you have a lot of elbow room. Don’t be afraid to sit near the front! 
  • Ask a simple, clarifying question early in the first lecture so you already establish a voice in the classroom.     
  • Speak confidently, even if you do not feel confident.      
  • Connect with the peers who seem interested in your thoughts and questions.        
  • Engage the professor by asking for further resources after class or sending an email saying you enjoyed the lecture.

You can set yourself up for success by preemptively planning easy action steps that assume your right to be in a religious program course!

Michaela Weller

Michaela Weller recently graduated from Multnomah University with two master’s degrees, one in Hebrew Language Studies and the other in Theological Studies. She now works as a consultant, tutor, and freelance writer. Her free time includes traveling the globe and reading! Contact her through LinkedIn or Upwork.
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