While a new report says that sexism pervades the North American Jewish federation system, in Los Angeles, the facts paint a much more positive picture of gender equality.
An old-boys' network and an attitude that rejects women's leadership skills have kept women from reaching the top echelons of the federation system, according to research released recently by the United Jewish Communities (UJC) and a group called Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community.
The study, based on interviews with a cross-section of North American federation leaders conducted from January to September 2003, sought to understand why women have not reached top executive spots in the 20 largest Jewish communities in North America. Some of those quoted in the report seem to reflect sexist attitudes.
"Just because a man might look at a woman as a sexual object doesn't mean that he's not taking her seriously professionally," said one male lay leader interviewed in the report. "I mean, does every woman have to be Golda Meir?"
"My advice to women is to be presentable and play to your femininity," he said. "Men want to preen, and they will respond favorably to the right package."
In its recommendations, the report advised the system to groom a significant number of low- and mid-level female staff members for senior positions, create flexible work environments that make it easier to balance career and family and make gender balance a criterion of executive search processes.
The report recommends experimenting with new models to promote gender equity, monitoring progress through data collection and integrating women's initiatives into federations' executive development programs.
The UJC, the umbrella group for North American Jewish federations, paid for and commissioned the report at the request of Stephen Hoffman, the group's president and CEO.
At The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, women appear to have more opportunities than their colleagues elsewhere. Of The Federation's 11 vice presidents and senior vice presidents, nine are women. To name but a few, Carol Koransky, the highest-ranking woman, serves as associate executive vice president and executive director of Valley Alliance; Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug is senior vice president of public affairs; and Carol Levy holds the title of senior vice president of leadership enhancement and development.
"I think there's definitely a desire to achieve gender equality and to be an open place for women to come and succeed," said Sue Wellerstein, senior vice president of human resources at The Federation.
Women hold none of The Federation's top three professional staff spots. However, they now hold the top three lay leader positions.
The L.A. Federation is believed to be the only one in the country with women occupying the top positions at the same time, Wellerstein said. Harriet Hochman is the board chair, Laurie Konheim serves as campaign chair and Sharon Janks heads the women's campaign chair.
The Federation's relatively strong record on hiring women for important positions mirrors a trend elsewhere at other Southern California Jewish institutions, Koransky said. Unlike on the East Coast, women in Los Angeles and other Western cities hold important positions in federations and Jewish agencies, she said.
At the national level, Hoffman said the situation reflects the gender imbalance in the corporate world, with which many federation volunteers are associated. While he doesn't yet have a precise plan to address the issue, "the first thing you do is you throw light on the issue," Hoffman said, and then "keep the light focused on this."
The report comes as the UJC is seeking a successor to Hoffman, who is stepping down in June. The search committee's top choices are said to come from the pool of large-city federation executives, all of whom are men and some of whom have been considered for the job in the past. The UJC has not hired an external search firm, which some say would be more likely to consider a wider field of candidates.
Shifra Bronznick, president of Advancing Women Professionals, called the report a "breakthrough."
Among the report's findings:
Female professionals face a "leaky pipeline" in the federation system, with sizable numbers in lower ranks but few at the top. The representation of female professionals increases as job prestige declines.
No women hold chief executive positions in Jewish federations in the largest U.S. cities -- though some, as in Los Angeles, have held the top lay positions -- and women hold just 28 percent of subexecutive positions in those cities. In large-intermediate cities, women hold 16 percent of the chief executive positions and 47 percent of subexecutive positions.
Women are held to a different standard than men. For example, the report claims, aggressive leadership is valued in men but is disdained in women and can cost them top jobs.
Despite advances in women's philanthropy, federation leaders question women's ability to raise funds, a key requirement for top executive positions.
The network that refers and recruits executive-level candidates is male-dominated and more likely to recommend other men.
According to Bronznick, UJC must apply the recommendations quickly but shouldn't regard the report as a recipe to which federations can simply "add water and stir."
"It has to be about people really understanding what all the elements of change are and grappling with them themselves," she said. "Otherwise things are going to be very superficial."
Senior Writer Marc Ballon contributed to this report.