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Study Compares Attitudes Toward Women’s Ordination and Women in Leadership


Loma Linda doctoral graduate Heather Knutson surveyed church members on how they feel about the ordination of women and found a correlation with how they feel about women in leadership roles in healthcare institutions. She would like to broaden the survey and collect data from church members around the world. 

Question: You completed your dissertation and graduated with a doctorate in Health Policy and Leadership from the Loma Linda University School of Public Health last June. Your dissertation compared attitudes toward the ordination of women in a pastoral role and the correlation with women in leadership positions in Adventist healthcare facilities. Can you tell us about your research?

Answer:  I wasn’t the student who knew from the beginning what I wanted to research.  I took my time deciding and I think I made my professors a little nervous.  Someone at work recommended that I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and and an idea began to form.  

The dissertation process can be challenging and my committee, particularly Zane Yi, PhD from the School of Religion, helped me narrow down the topic.  At the time I began work on my dissertation, there was no research asking church members for their views on ordination.  There has been so much media attention around the gender pay gap and how women are viewed in the workplace that I wanted to formally collect data on attitudes towards ordination, as well as Adventist attitudes towards women in leadership.  

I did a lengthy literature review, which looked at whether or not there was existing research about women’s ordination and leadership in Adventism.  I found an excellent article that Jared Wright wrote in 2016 for Spectrum describing the lack of women in leadership roles within our church, and several articles on the history of the discussion on women’s ordination within Adventism, but there were no studies on the subject.  

I then looked at the existing research on women’s ordination in other denominations.  There is a fair amount for the Catholic Church as well as the Lutheran Church.  Essentially, within the Catholic Church, members are increasingly supportive of the concept and within the Lutheran Church, the more educated the member, the more likely they are to support the ordination of women.  

I also looked at the facts and figures for women in leadership roles within healthcare, as this was a health policy degree.  

Everywhere I looked, women were underrepresented.  Europe has begun to place mandates on diversity within the workplace but the US is very reluctant to follow suit. 

Your survey sample was quite small, I believe — just one church congregation in southern California. What did you find in this survey? Were there any surprising findings?

Yes, the sample size was relatively small as this was a pilot study and the main focus was to find out whether or not the survey we created was valid and reliable.  

I am grateful to the church for allowing me access to their congregation.  They did so without question and have been very interested in learning the results.  

The respondents were 51.1% female and 48.9% male.  Most respondents were above the age of 45 and most earned 60% or more of their household income.  

We found that the majority (85.93%) were supportive of the ordination of women.  This was surprising to me. I know the church I used to obtain my sample was in southern California and southern Californian Adventist churches tend to be viewed a bit differently than, say, a church in Michigan, but I was surprised to see the number was so high.  

Do you think the survey results might be different with a larger sample and broader demographic, since it seems southern Californians come down pretty strongly on the pro-women’s ordination side?

The results might be different.  They might not.  But I am not tired of this topic.  Far from it.  And so, wherever I go, I like to ask what folks’ thoughts on ordination are.  I’ve had these conversations across the United States, as well as in Canada.  Although I am finding folks who are very much against the ordination of women, the majority are not opposed to it.  

I appreciate the people who are against women’s ordination because they provide me with an opportunity to understand and to ask questions in different ways.  Most people would never think about how their views in one area can affect their views in another.  When I mention that their view on ordination just might color how they feel about gender in leadership roles, there is often a moment of self-reflection visible before I get a response.  That moment is what I want, because it forces a person to think about the issue in a different way.  Yes, southern California is very much known for being pro-ordination.  But there are folks here who are not, and very vocal about it.  Just like there are people who are very pro-ordination outside southern California.  

I would love to capture all of it someday.  I’d like to spend some time in South America and Africa and Australia gathering data.  I think we need this data, as our Seventh-day Adventist leaders aren’t looking in the places they should be looking.  There have not been objective studies.  (Some might accuse me of not being objective, as I have never hidden my stance on women’s ordination — but I truly do think it is important for everyone to have their say.) 

Is there a chance the study could be conducted on a larger scale?

Yes. In the pilot study, we discovered that parts of the survey worked and others didn’t.  I want to go back and streamline the survey and bring it to a wider group.  

We chose an online survey as our method of data collection and that proved to be incredibly convenient.  It is short-sighted to only survey church members in North America and like I mentioned before, I’d like to sample churches in places like South America and Africa.

How are the results of your research helpful? Are they useful to the boards and hiring managers of Adventist healthcare organizations? Or to Adventist church leadership?

I am so glad that you have asked these questions!  The negative attitudes towards women in leadership roles are not unique to the Adventist Church.  The secular world actually has the most research in this area.   I’m going to get a little off-topic to answer your questions but bear with me for a bit.  

Attitudes towards women in leadership can be very obvious or they can hide under the surface.  Men and women are each responsible for holding women back.  (Yes, women!)  We socialize our girls differently than our boys.  Even teachers treat the two differently as early as elementary school.  

One of my favorite studies is referred to in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Heidi Roizen’s success story was given to two separate university classes by researchers Frank Flynn and Cameron Anderson in 2003.  One class was told that Heidi was in fact Harold and the other was told that Heidi was Heidi.  While each class rated Harold and Heidi as competent and respected them both, Heidi was described as selfish and not someone they would want to hire while Harold was seen as “the more appealing colleague” (Sandberg, 2013).  

Gender stereotypes prevent women from pursuing careers in technical fields.  Dasgupta (2015) found that female engineering students were more likely to be interested in pursuing a career in engineering if they were placed in a group of four that was at least 50% women.  The surprising thing about her research was that each female student felt that it was her knowledge and level of participation in the group that shaped her interest.  The students didn’t recognize that being in a group with at least 50% women had a positive impact.

When an organization is predominantly male, it makes for a sort of inhospitable environment for women, especially women who are trying to pursue roles in leadership.  Historically, workplaces have been designed to work around the lives of men.  Women have historically been the “trailing spouses” who go wherever their husbands go.  Women have often taken the behind-the-scenes roles while men have taken the more visible “heroic” roles.  The heroic roles get more recognition than the behind-the-scenes roles, and so because men are the ones who are more visible, they are seen as being more capable of leading.  

Second, when women do not have access to female role models in leadership roles, they also lack access to female mentors.  

Third, as each gender tends to gravitate towards members of the same gender, women may not have access to colleagues who are influential.  

A fourth point to consider is that when women in leadership roles start to use traditional male characteristics in their leadership approach, they might be respected but not liked.  If they use traditional female characteristics they might be liked but not respected.  This, according to Ibbara et al (2013) is called a “double bind.”   

So, yes, folks in administration, boards, churches need to know what women face as they are pursuing roles in leadership.  They need to also recognize the research and use the research as they are hiring and as they are facilitating paths to leadership roles for women.  

No profession has been successful at reaching gender diversity.  Imagine if our denomination led the way!  Women in our church are so valuable!  We have wonderful healthcare systems, food production systems and a wonderful education system and it would serve us well to be aware of the issues.  

Can your research be extrapolated to encompass non-Adventist institutions, or is it really only relevant to the Adventist world?

Most of my research for my literature review came from outside Adventism.  While we are a unique culture, we are influenced by the society that surrounds us.  We stand to learn from the secular world as much as they stand to learn from us.  I do think also that this research is helpful for other denominations who may be having the same conversation about women’s ordination as we are, because the leadership portion adds another layer to the discussion.  

Are you aware of other graduate research being done on similar topics, or about women’s ordination?

I am not.  John Gavin, William Ellis and Curtis VanderWaal presented their research last year at the Adventist Human Subject Research Association in Loma Linda and I had occasion to go and hear them speak.  As part of their research they also asked the ordination question and found that 86.51% were in favor of women being ordained.  This is quite similar to my results and is gratifying, as they had a much larger sample size than I did.  I believe a summary of their researchappeared in Spectrum.  

Do you feel that attitudes toward women’s ordination, and toward women in leadership positions, are changing among Adventists? Are women breaking through the glass ceiling? Do you see us still talking about this in 10 or 20 years’ time?

Hmmm, yes, unfortunately, I do still see us talking about this for quite some time.  No, we are not breaking through the glass ceiling.  Almost everyone has heard the term “the glass ceiling” pertaining to women and the invisible barrier that prevents them from truly reaching the positions of power traditionally held by men. The literature even refers to a previous title: the cement ceiling.  Both of these terms, the researchers Eagly and Carli (2007) state, are out of date.  They feel that the term “glass ceiling” is too rigid.  The latest term is what they refer to as the “labyrinth.” This term is used to describe how women supposedly move through a maze (sometimes up, sometimes across) in order to reach their goal.  Mazes and labyrinths can be difficult to navigate and I think that is the point.  For women, finding the way to positions of leadership is difficult.

Yes, I do think attitudes are changing.  Millenials don’t see things the way the old guard sees them.  In general, Millenials have been raised in two-parent income families where both parents took responsibility for the care and raising of their children.  Because of their parents’ example, Millenials differ from all other generations in that they do not see male and female roles in the workplace.  They see gender neutrality as the norm (Winogard and Hais, 2013).  This is great news for the future of ordaining women and women in leadership but we still need the discussion to continue with the older generations.  

I think it’s wonderful that most of my respondents were above the age of 45 but the researchers whose articles I read would probably say that we need more men to recognize the problems and to create opportunities where none currently exist.

How did you get interested in this topic? Why did you choose to research in this area?

I had read Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In and I was reading the magazine Fast Companyroutinely.  Fast Company writes about innovators and creative chaos, and an article by a musician ended up being part of the inspiration I needed.  I was in year three or four and generally by then you are supposed to have solidified your topic.  The first meetings with my dissertation committee were entirely overwhelming, as my first inclination was to create some sort of handbook that Adventist healthcare leaders could use to help them understand the issues women face as they pursue leadership roles.  Then we started talking about the ordination of women and Zane Yi suggested I not do a manual but study the a correlation between women’s ordination and women in leadership.  

I was raised in northern Ontario in a family where traditional roles were mostly upheld.  Having said that, my mum worked outside the home.  She did it all.  She danced circles around my dad, who was utterly clueless.  But she knew her place and never tried to push the boundaries of that place.  

These issues pertaining to women’s ordination and women in leadership have become ethical issues for me. I have two daughters and I am not willing to limit their possibilities because our church says they can’t fill certain roles due to their gender.  I’m also not willing to have them believe that their gender dictates what profession they can pursue or how far they can go in an organization.  We have these wonderful discussions around the dinner table about the research I have done.  I try my best to ask the questions rather than lead the discussion in a slanted way.  Then my husband will throw some old-school thought out there and then will sit back with a smirk because there is an absolute backlash from both of them.  They are thinking for themselves and it’s humbling and inspirational. 

What are you working on now? What do you do in your day job?

I am taking a year off to recover from my doctorate, enjoy my family, and figure out what “normal” means again.  Both my husband and I completed doctorates within one year of each other. I’ve also submitted a publishable paper, which was one of the chapters in my dissertation.  I would like to pick up where I left off with a full study and a revised survey. We’ll call that my five-year plan.  

I have two masters degrees: one in speech-language pathology and the other in audiology.  I had originally pursued the doctorate as a way of joining the two related fields together in a more concrete way but I’ve ended up with an entirely new field.  

Right now I am using all three degrees within a school district.  My research, the leadership part of my degree as well as the health policy part has changed the way I interact with colleagues and students; the way I supervise and the way I interact with parents.


Listen to this interview:


Photo courtesy of Heather Knutson

Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.

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