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Post Leadership
Posted at 10:32 AM ET, 02/17/2012

Absence of women at birth-control hearing prompts larger question

Religious leaders told a House panel Thursday the Obama administration was violating basic rights to religious freedom with its policies for requiring that employees of religion-affiliated institutions have access to birth control coverage.
On Thursday, a brouhaha broke out during the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform hearings on the contraceptive coverage rule. Congresswomen Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) walked out of the hearing after questioning why there were no women representatives on the first hearing’s panel of witnesses. Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and his staff countered that the hearing was not just about contraception, but religious freedom; that the female Georgetown University law student the Democrats proposed was not “appropriate” or “qualified”; and that the Democrats should have turned in their witness selections earlier in the week.

But while the two sides may be battling over why women weren’t invited to the hearing and whether this is an issue about women’s rights or religious freedom, there is an even bigger issue at stake: the lack of women leaders in these institutions. The morning panel was composed of religious leaders and professors on ethics and religion: Rev. William Lori, Roman Catholic bishop of Bridgeport, Conn.; Rev. Matthew Harrison, the president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod; Ben Mitchell, a professor of moral philosophy at Union University; Rabbi Meir Solveichik, from Yeshiva University; and Craig Mitchell, a professor of ethics at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

It’s unfortunately not surprising that there weren’t many women invited to such a panel—Roman Catholic priests cannot be women, of course, and women cannot be ordained as Orthodox Jews and are a minority of rabbis in other movements. And while there are certainly female professors of ethics and philosophy, women continue to be a minority in the academic world as well. A 2011 Catalyst study found that just 24 percent of tenured full professors in U.S. higher educational institutions are women and that just 38 percent of associate professors are female.

I’m hardly arguing that there wasn’t a way for the committee to find notable female professors and even religious leaders to include on their panel. From Sister Carol Keehan, the CEO of the Catholic Health Association, who has been a pivotal figure in the birth control debate, to Katharine Jefferts Schori, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, there are notable women who hold positions of power in religious fields. Nor am I arguing that they shouldn’t have asked them: Even if the broader context of the discussion was about religious freedom, the hearing centered on an issue that is core to women’s lives, and it is painfully obvious that women should have been included on it.

But until more women reach positions of influence in academia and religious institutions, the real question won’t just be why there aren’t enough women on the panels, but how their absence in greater numbers at the top of our cultural organizations is influencing the very decisions being debated on the panels from which they’re missing. We need women on any formal national discussion on birth control and religion, of course. But even more important, we need more women making the decisions that influence women’s lives in the first place. 

More from On Leadership:

An upside to the ‘angry black woman’ stereotype?

How to pick a birth-control battle

A love note to the workaholic

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By  |  10:32 AM ET, 02/17/2012

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