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Biblical women in the workplace

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My wife has always been annoyed that we didn’t have Proverbs 31 as a reading in our marriage service. I baulked at the idea since I felt it was suggesting that she would have to do all the work! After all, the woman described in this famous last chapter of Proverbs is a provider, property purchaser, clothesmaker, teacher and gorgeous princess (‘clothed in fine linen and purple’) all at once.

What leadership research seems to be uncovering is the abiding wisdom of Proverbs 31.

It just seemed too much to ask, even of Amelia! Here’s a sample:

‘She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands.’ (She not only shops, but also makes clothes.)
‘She is like the ships of a merchant; she brings her food from afar.”’ (She goes a long way to shop!)
‘She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.’ (She always knows what to say.)
‘She looks well to the ways of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.’ (She never seems to rest!)

Caroline Chisholm, an early Australian Proverbs 31 woman: social entrepreneur, welfare worker, employment agent, reformer, banker, mother of eight. Apart from the Queen, the first woman on an Australian Dollar note.

Caroline Chisholm, an early Australian Proverbs 31 woman: social entrepreneur, welfare worker, employment agent, reformer, banker, mother of eight. Apart from the Queen, the first woman on an Australian Dollar note.

But these are all, in the end, not actions for herself, her family or her husband. They are all for the Lord: ‘Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised’. All of these wonderful qualities are expressions of service to God.

When I thought about that, I really did regret not having the reading. I wasn’t listening properly: this was an expression of the great qualities of a woman, made by God, in service of her God. Her husband, family and community are all the beneficiaries.

While I was pondering my folly, a recent book on management, The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future by John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio, caught my eye. Surveying 64,000 people across 13 countries, the authors (despite both being male!) found a consistent sea change (I prefer ‘she-change’) in approaches to leadership. Men and women alike were reporting the need for, and success of, leadership qualities traditionally attributed more to women than to men. Companies were noting the need for ‘flexibility, collaboration, nurturing, and transparency’, finding that these arguably feminine traits were increasingly valuable in addressing the complexities of global business.

For instance, being cooperative around production schedules would enable price reductions by increasing order sizes. Or seeing vulnerability as a strength rather than a weakness would enable experimentation and innovation; an employee could ‘fail’ without getting a reputation as ‘soft’. The study also
concluded that ‘feminine’ thinking led to greater optimism about the future and increased resilience to deal with it.

Interestingly, the greatest positivity about this ‘she-change’ was coming from traditionally male-dominated business cultures in China, Japan, Korea and India.
What leadership research seems to be uncovering is the abiding wisdom of Proverbs 31. The qualities that are listed to describe the character of a noble wife are qualities that generally help life to ‘work’. Virtues such as perseverance, prudence, empathy, strength, dignity, humour and ability to offer comfort: these are all praised in Proverbs, and exactly the qualities that today’s workplace seems to be valuing, too.

What works for the ancient household of Solomon’s time, also works for the complex global multinationals of 21st century business. The Bible continues to speak today; sometimes we are slow to catch on. Husbands can be especially slow.

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