Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Supportive Leadership Behavior Key to Breaking the Glass Ceiling in Religious Communities in Malawi

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Supportive Leadership Behavior Key to Breaking the Glass Ceiling in Religious Communities in Malawi

Article excerpt


In recent years, the number of women in leadership positions has continued to change for the better in some fields, while in other fields not much change has been experienced. According to Christian history, it is clear that most official Church policies excluded women from holding clergy positions. Over the years, policies have changed dramatically within many denominations (Chaves 1997) but the number of women rising to clergy positions remains remarkably low (Konieczny and Chaves 2000). The lack of clear policies to promote women rising to clergy positions and senior leadership positions has worsened the already existing barriers for women to break the glass ceiling in the denominational churches in some parts of the world.

Research has shown that there are systemic barriers such as lack of opportunities and power, lack of mentors and role models for women in organizations, and widespread discrimination, which limit their opportunities to rise to top leadership positions (Morrison and Von Glinow 1990; Goodman, Fields and Blum 2003). There is therefore need for existing leaders in denominational churches and religious institutions to provide supportive leadership behavior to women serving in different leadership positions to break the glass ceiling. By supportive leadership behavior, I mean behavior that gives respect to women and allows them an opportunity to lead; and allows them to rise to the top in denominational and religious institutions.

There is no research that has been carried out on such barriers in the Church and religious institutions in Malawi. In this essay, I employ autoethnography to reflect on my experiences with barriers that stand against women's leadership within the church in Malawi. I explicate two critical incidents to show some of the struggles that women face in Malawi that may resonate with women in other parts of Africa. The incidents that I have shared show that there is a lack of supportive leadership behaviors from current leaders to support women seeking to be part of the top leadership team in religious institutions. I have also used stories of other women leaders who had similar negative experiences to show how the church and religious institutions make it difficult for women to be trained for church leadership. I demonstrate how in some African communities it is not just a glass ceiling but the whole structure (the walls and the roof), which makes it difficult for women to take leadership positions in the church. Empirical research shows that women in different circles face barriers to reach top leadership positions. While there is evidence that in some circles this is changing, not much has been written about the barriers that women face in denominational churches and religious institutions that prepare Church leaders in some parts of Africa.

The glass ceiling is one key barrier that impedes women's career advancement. It serves as an invisible barrier to the advancement of women within organizations across countries. Wirth (2001) defines the glass ceiling as the invisible barriers, created by attitudinal prejudices to block women from senior executive positions. It is a barrier that appears invisible but it is strong enough to hold women back from top-level positions merely because they are women rather than because they lack job-relevant skills, education, or experience (Morrison and Von Glinow 1990; Morrison, White, Van Velsor 1992; Powell and Butterfield 1994; U.S. Department of Labor 1991, 1995).


In this paper, I argue that positive leadership behavior can encourage promotion of women leaders in the denominational churches and religious institutions in Malawi. Women continue to be under-represented in the mainline denominational churches in Malawi. While the situation seems to be changing in other sectors, most denominational churches appear slow to change. The purpose of this article is to show that supportive leadership behaviors can encourage congregations to have positive attitude toward women leaders in the religious institutions and the denominational churches in Malawi. …

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