What I Learned about Gender (and Diversity) from Christian Academic Publishing

This post by Katya Covrett originally appeared on A Pilgrim in Narnia blog in December 2015 in response to the blogger’s critique of the Zondervan Academic catalog.

katya 2 low res I am a woman. I am the wife of one and the mother of two, a teen and a tween, so life is full. I am an editor at a Christian publishing house—and an academic editor at that. Nerd that I am, I am more prone to cuddle up with a heavy exposition of Romans or the latest and greatest work of theology—with a red pen to boot—than with a bestselling Amish romance novel. As if I did not already have enough in my life, I am exploring a doctoral program on another continent. I am Russian—not just by birth but by upbringing. As such, I did not grow up in what the popular opinion regards as the “civilized West,” and so, to an extent, I represent a degree of ethnic diversity and can still fake a pretty heavy Russian accent when necessary (and, yes, I have a large cat to go with it).

I came to the United States in the late ‘90s to study in seminary and, undoubtedly, to change the world. A minority among the few counseling-major women in my class, I enrolled in a decidedly academic track, majoring in systematic theology and the New Testament (yes, it is possible). Mere months after graduation I entered the world of Christian publishing as an editorial assistant in Zondervan’s church, reference, and academic division. Within a couple of years I was acquiring academic books.

As the sole woman on the academic team back then, I was more than a little bothered by our list. Why didn’t we have more women on our author list? Why weren’t women more of a forethought in our publishing strategy rather than, as it often goes, an (albeit unintentional) afterthought at best? After all, everyone on the team was fully supportive of women, myself included, and our own editor-in-chief, Stan Gundry, whom I count as my mentor, has sacrificed much for his advocacy on behalf of women.[1] Something had to change.

Fast-forward to December 3, 2015.

It took me a few hours, if I am honest, to simmer down after reading Brenton Dickieson’s post. “How could you! … Have you any idea how hard we—I!—have worked to get this far?! … I have at times put my reputation on the line for this! … And did it occur to you to come and ask us, ask me?! … I’ve busted my ass for this!!! … How—! … UGH!”

Deep breaths.

As a female academic editor, I am acutely aware of the imbalance (Is that even the right word? What’s the word when we are not even close to any sort of “balance”?) between male and female authors in publishers’ catalogs in general and the Zondervan Academic catalog in particular. Having worked hard to address this problem for over a decade, I can say from personal experience that the lack of women in publishers’ catalogs is often not for lack of trying. (I am leaving aside those obvious ones that don’t bother trying.) With as few women as enter the world of Christian academia, you typically start with a small pool to begin with, and once you layer on limitations of discipline, expertise/specialization, approach, the book idea itself, or any theological parameters, you are left with a handful—at best. And the few (any?) women you are left with are already booked up years out or have other priorities, commitments, or preferences. Many simply say no. I am not making excuses, but, strategy or not, publishers are constrained by the shape of the academy. The representation of women in our academy—or lack thereof—is alarming. We are in a better position now than even a decade ago but not nearly where we should be. If women are to be better represented in publishers’ catalogs, it has to be a publishing vision upfront—not an afterthought—and a commitment in the publisher’s acquisitions strategy and throughout the life of the edited work or a series. But even then we often fail.

Deep breaths.

Now in my fourteenth year with what has become Zondervan Academic, I look back at the past decade to take stock of where we are. I look back not to pat our team or myself on the back, but to gain perspective. So, what do I see?

I see dearth—still.

We often hear it said that there is a dearth of women in biblical studies. When John Byron, Joel Lohr, and I began working on I (Still) Believe, finding senior, to say nothing of retired, female biblical scholars proved more of a challenge than any of us anticipated. There was quite literally only a handful of women at the senior level of scholarship that we could come up with. Dearth is an understatement. Even today.

Still, if you think there is a dearth of women in biblical studies, look at theology—where the situation is far worse. Few women go into theological studies to begin with, and even fewer continue in constructive work in straight-up dogmatic theology rather than shifting—or being pressed—into “gender studies” or whatever. Working closely with the New Studies in Dogmatics Series and the Los Angeles Theology Conference, I see it firsthand. Anyone perusing the list of NSD contributors or the speaker lineup for LATC may think we were merely content with having a “token woman” on the list.[2] The reality is that we—the editors and I—don’t even need two hands to list the female theologians available to us as contributors to the series or the conference. Indeed, we dream that one day a conference like LATC might have a “token man” in the speaker lineup.[3] May that day come.

I see progress.

Well, at least some signs of progress. A prime example from Zondervan Academic is the Story of God Bible Commentary. One might look at SGBC and question whether 14 volumes authored by female scholars out of 43 is “progress” enough. Perhaps not. But when you consider that the 44-volume NIV Application Commentary—conceived at the dawn of the ‘90s—includes only one woman,[4] SGBC’s one-third female cast doesn’t look so dire. Women are also key members of both its Old and New Testament editorial boards.

More recently, I see hope.

I see hope in the faces of fifty women gathered for the IBR Female Scholars’ Breakfast in Atlanta in November 2015. Seeing so many academic women from different parts of the globe in one room brought a tear to my eye and a quiver to my voice as I spoke to them, as those who were present can attest.

I see hope when I work side-by-side with my colleagues Nancy Erickson, Sarah Gombis, Kari Moore, Janelle DeBlaay, Stine May, Kim Tanner, and Trinity McFadden on the Zondervan Academic team.

I see hope when the men on our team are not threatened by this formidable cast.

I see hope when more and more male biblical scholars and theologians encourage young women to pursue academic studies and engage positively with the scholarship of their female peers—among them are Mike Bird, Craig Blomberg, Nijay Gupta, Tremper Longman, Craig Keener, Scot McKnight, Christopher Skinner, Steve Walton, Christopher J. H. Wright, N. T. Wright, and numerous others space keeps me from mentioning. They have gone on record in books and blogs asking these same questions I am raising here. May their tribe increase! We need our brothers. To borrow the words of my friend Allen Yeh, “I am convinced that (1) you are the best critic of a group if you are part of it, and (2) you are the best advocate of a group if you are not a part of it.” In our male-dominated fields, we need more men in biblical-theological studies catching a #HeForShe vision.[5] Encouragement goes a long way, especially when women face different roadblocks on the scholarly path than men do—“theological barriers,” differing expectations in marriage and motherhood, cultural misconceptions about women and femininity, glass ceiling, and so on.[6] I am and will continue to be grateful for the men who encouraged, pushed, supported, and opened figurative doors for me throughout my career.

I see much work yet to be done and challenges that lie ahead.

Despite more than a decade of work, we still find that “balance” is elusive. Balance in academic publishing in particular can be hard to trace. Academic writing takes years (and years, and years, and…), so the result of “newer” acquisitions strategies is never immediately obvious. Academic publishing tends to be backlist-driven—that is, published works remain in print and in catalogs for years. In many ways our catalog still reflects the past more than the goals that have driven and energized us for the past decade. Working against the backdrop of eighty-five years in business is an uphill battle, and it’s daunting.

Try as we might, the “lack of balance” in the academy continues to constrain us. Everything I’ve said here about women can also be said about ethnic minorities and global voices, which have been other significant areas of publishing for Zondervan Academic. Whether we like it or not, the White Male Club that is the Christian academia—no offense, guys—is the context in which we acquire and publish. The uphill battle continues.

And so we continue to seek balance and diversity—not out of a sense of political correctness, but because as members of the body of Christ we all complement one another. When we do not have the voices and perspectives of women, ethnic minorities, and scholars from the Majority World, we all suffer—men, women, biblical scholars and theologians, students, and the church as a whole.

I didn’t change the world since I went to seminary and entered Christian publishing and academia. But that world changed me in ways that run deep and keep me up at night more often than I want to admit. What else can we—can I—do?

I can and will keep trying. I can continue to pursue, encourage, and develop women in the academy as much as it depends on me. For every book idea or a series opening, I can continue to ask, “Can we get a woman?” I can continue to search and consult my lists and ask my trusted advisors in order to find female voices that academia and the church need to hear. And I will.

But one thing is for sure, I cannot do it on my own. Even we as Zondervan Academic cannot do it on our own. We need your help. We need the help of scholars, editors, publishers, pastors, men and women—we need you.

Will you join us?

 ***

Katya Covrett (MTS, Grand Rapids Theological Seminary) is Executive Editor at Zondervan Academic.

____________________________________________

[1] Stan Gundry, “From Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers to Woman Be Free: My Story,” April 30, 2005. Priscilla Papers. CBE International: http://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/bobbed-hair-bossy-wives-and-women-preachers-woman-be-free (accessed December 3, 2015).

[2] Though in the words of biblical feminist Pat Gundry, “A token gets you on the bus.”

[3] For the record, the phrase comes from my male co-organizers of the conference.

[4] It is Karen Jobes, though Donna Petter will soon be added for half of Ezra-Nehemiah, making it a whopping 1.5 women out of 44.

[5] See http://www.heforshe.org.

[6] For an insightful (and sobering) glimpse into women’s experiences in one segment of Christian academia, see the recent study by Emily Louise Zimbrick-Rogers, “A Question Mark Over My Head: Experiences of Women ETS Members at the 2014 ETS Annual Meeting,” October 19, 2015. CBE International: http://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/question-mark-over-my-head (accessed December 3, 2015).

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7 Responses to What I Learned about Gender (and Diversity) from Christian Academic Publishing

  1. Pingback: What I Learned about Gender (and Diversity) from Christian Academic Publishing — Women Biblical Scholars | Talmidimblogging

  2. As one of the many women you have encouraged and helped in this field, I thank you!

    Like

  3. Anne Dryburgh says:

    How can a woman go about publishing an academic book?

    Like

  4. WBS says:

    Glad you asked! Stay tuned as next week Katya presents a two part series on exactly that!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Elizabeth says:

    Hi Katya,
    Thanks so much for this post, and for your amazing efforts over a very long time. As as young female training in systematic and political theology, I am often overwhelmed by my lack of “peers” – on reading lists, in libraries, in classrooms, at conferences. As you highlight, the support of allies makes a tremendous difference and I am personally thankful for the efforts of Mike Bird, amongst others. Keep up the great work!

    Elizabeth Culhane

    Like

  6. Pingback: The Task of Dogmatics: LATC17 Call for Papers - The Scriptorium Daily

  7. Andrea Jones says:

    Thank you and thank you!

    Like

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