Women Board Members:

A first corporate response to GC 34?

(Published in National Jesuit News, June, 1995, pp. 7, 18)

The decree on “Jesuits and the Situation of Women in Church and Civil Society” is bold enough; it would not be too much to call it “dramatic.” It says “(prejudice against women) is a universal reality,” “(church) sources call us to change our attitudes and work for a change of structures,” and “there is an urgency in the challenge to translate theory into practice not only outside, but also within the Church itself.”

      Furthermore, it invites all Jesuits “as individuals and through their institutions, to align themselves in solidarity with women” (Emphasis in the original) and to seek “appropriate presence of women in Jesuit ministries and institutions.”

      It is quite possible that, as rich and profound as other decrees of GC 34 doubtless are, the decree on “Jesuits and the Situation of Women in Church and Civil Society” will be viewed in years to come as the most striking contribution of the congregation to the history of human development. A band of highly competent world-watchers (all celibate males) gather from a wide range of countries and cultures; they survey the human situation; and, out of all the possible phenomena they might choose to define as universally integral to our mission, they assume solidarity with the cause of women. Such surprises are the stuff of epiphany. Sarah may laugh, but Abraham and she may not be as old as appearances might lead some to believe.

      Of course, there is yet the doing, the transformation of attitudes, the leeching out of the virus of clericalism that affects us all. Hard work. And harder still when then congregation soberly informs us that we have that “tendency to convince ourselves that there is no problem.” Complicity in a form of clericalism is bad enough, but it is much more subtle when it has “reinforced male domination with an ostensibly divine sanction.” It’s a dangerous thing to co-opt “God” (even a false one) for anything, but most of all to justify control. The pretense of divine sanction is so seductive that, after using it for centuries, it becomes all the more difficult finally to let go and risk the chaos of becoming genuinely vulnerable within a peer relationship: what will that “God” say? How will we still the internal voice we have been listening to so “unwittingly” all these years in order even to take what the congregation tells us is the first step for which “there is no substitute”: to learn to listen to the experience of women?

      My concern here is less cosmic. I would like to put out for discussion an agenda that apparently contains a hidden paradox. On the surface it would seem absurdly simple to take care of, one of those items where the Nike ad slogan might be applicable: just do it. And yet because people aren’t taking care of it, we would have to suppose that its implementation must be being blocked by other unacknowledged agendas.

      I am referring to the small proportion of women on the boards of trustees of our colleges and universities, which in the year 1995 should be at least an embarrassment, if not a scandal.

      Some six or seven years ago a modest effort was made to address the situation, in the form of a letter addressed to the presidents of our institutions of higher education in one U.S. province, as well as to the provincial and all the Jesuits serving on the boards of those institutions.

      The responses provide an interesting mosaic. The provincial was very supportive of the goal of having wider representation of women on these significant governing bodies. He encouraged the effort to do something about it. But, well, you see, when we separately incorporated these institutions that took the provincial out of the loop. Boards of trustees of American institutions of higher education are sovereign, autonomous entities.

      All thing considered, it’s probably good diplomacy for a provincial to keep himself one step removed from issues related to internal governance of our schools. We do have Jesuit presidents and some province members on the boards to see to it that Jesuit vision and ideals are constantly being translated into policy and practice in the institutions that bear the name of the Society; that’s their responsibility, to act for all of us in overseeing such matters. Working through delegates conserves the leadership power of the provincial for appropriate use when bigger issues are on the line.

      It may not be inappropriate to wonder if the necessary separation if roles hasn’t gone a bit too far, however, when a provincial says in effect that his hands are tied, that there is nothing he can do. Does he now really have no role (not even a questioning role?) To play in a discussion about something so central as the composition of the top governing body of a school that is still identified with the Society?

      The responses of the presidents varied, as might be expected. One theme was that the goal is worth working toward and the president was already taking steps to find women to serve as board members. In other cases the tone was closer to one of lip-service.

      One president took a different tack. He said that the reason his board didn’t have many women on it was because he waned experienced CEOs to serve on his board, and not many women have reached that organizational status. His stance raised troubling questions. When what is called a board of trustees is actually construed as a collection of top managers helping the CEO to operate a good shop; when it fails to be the wisdom body which can challenge the institutions by raising questions of fundamental identity, vision and direction, precisely because it is not a group of executives; when it is designed not to play that wisdom-seeking role; in such conditions school may already be out although the doors remain open.

      Whatever the national statistics are regarding women chief executives, the agenda I am suggesting we pursue is the enlistment of wise, competent women as board members, not as managers. The rest of our society seems to be quite capable of finding such women. So should we.

      What is to be done now that the consciousness of our Society has been newly focused by our highest authority? A few modest observations:

      1) Jesuits who serve on these boards must take a proactive role in pursuing this agenda. They can get themselves appointed to search committees and nominating committees and maintain a preferential option for the nomination of competent women. They can canvass civic and ecclesial leaders whom they meet in their ministry and develop profiles of women whose names pop up constantly when vision and leadership are being discussed, and bring those names to the attention of nominating committees. They can initiate one’-‘to-one conversations with the president of their institution, sparing him a public contest in the forum of the board but challenging him as a brother committed to the mission of the Society. If their efforts seem to fail repeatedly, they might offer to resign or, when their term comes up, propose that the person who replaces them not be another Jesuit but rather a woman.

      2) Jesuit communities attached to these institutions should take an active role, monitoring the nomination process and inviting the president to a dialogue on the subject. The community need not propose actual names (although it is not impossible that the community might coalesce around a list of potentials), but they can make clear that they want to see progress on the question. The superior or rector of the local Jesuit community will ordinarily serve on the board; it could strengthen his position if he were to go to the board with the solid support of the community behind him when he calls for appointment of a woman to the board.

      3) Those of us who have no direct responsibility for these institutions can still assume an active role. It is not unusual that we find ourselves in contact with highly competent women that the academic circles might be unaware of; we should forward those names to the Jesuits who represent us in leadership at the various levels mentioned above. We should track the numbers when they are reported in province bulletins and speak up at province gatherings if institutional inertia seems still to be in evidence. Inertia, by definition, does not need a voice; enactment of newly conscious values does.

      The network of 28Jesuit institutions of higher learning is a powerful symbol of the vision and labors of generations of Jesuit giants who went before us. Creatures of their founding cultural times, the schools were for a long time enclaves of male control: male administrations and faculties serving male students. It is to their credit that they gradually opened up enrollment to women as students and hired women as professors. To have so few women be invited to bring their vision, passion and courage to the task of responsible direction of this great resource is like a jagged slash across a lovely work of art.

      Having a full complement of wise women guides will not bring about the Parousia. The gap scarcely compares with the kinds of injustices to women around the world which are documented in the congregation’s decree. GC 34 wisely declared that each culture will have to fashion its own unique response from the perspective of its own culture. Addressing this issue may be one of the smaller steps to take as U.S. Jesuits, but it is one we can begin to take right now. If we have the will.