April 17, 2008
Gender equity lags in Jewish organizations
It's been 44 years since Title VI of the Civil Right Act barred employment discrimination on the basis of race or sex and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was set up to enforce it.
No one pretends, however, that gender inequity has disappeared from the American workplace. And it is just as pervasive in the Jewish workplace -- even more so, critics charge, than in fields such as law, medicine and academia, areas that have poured resources into closing the gender gap in a way that Jewish organizations have not.
Morlie Levin, the national executive director of Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, spent 25 years as a national security analyst at the Rand Corporation before going into Jewish communal work a decade ago.
"The Jewish community is a much more gender-stratified community than any I know, much more than the U.S. military," she said.
A new book, "Leveling the Playing Field: Advancing Women in Jewish Organizational Life," aims to change that.
Published by a group that has long sought to advance the cause of gender equity in Jewish life, "Leveling the Playing Field" provides a how-to guide to gender equity for Jewish professionals and the organizations where they work.
It's not that women are absent from Jewish life. They fill the pews of liberal synagogues and make up most of the staff at Jewish organizations. More than half the new non-Orthodox rabbis and most of the cantors are women.
Jewish summer camps and youth groups are overwhelmingly female. In fact the liberal movements, particularly the Reform, are struggling to bring their boys and men back into religious life.
But the top echelons of Jewish communal life -- the executives of major Jewish organizations and the leaders of the large federations -- are still male.
"I've done studies of rabbis, of federations, of JCC professionals, and wherever we look, men occupy more prestigious and better-compensated positions," said sociologist Steven M. Cohen, whose studies are cited in the new book.
"What's bad and wrong for America is bad and wrong for American Jewry," said Cohen of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
"Leveling the Playing Field," produced by the group Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, along with Cambridge Leadership Associates, lays out the theoretical basis for creating gender equity in Jewish organizations, showing that it is not only right, it's good business.
For example, the book cites a 2004 study of more than 350 Fortune 500 companies that found that those with the greatest percentage of women on top management teams performed better financially than companies with the fewest women leaders.
The book then provides concrete steps that women -- and men -- can take to move their own Jewish organizations onto a more gender-equal footing, from building alliances to setting up in-house mentoring programs for promising young employees.
In addition, Advancing Women Professionals will provide mentoring support and a conversation kit to help people trying to effect such organizational changes.
Cindy Chazan, the director of alumni and community development for the Wexner Foundation and a former executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, Conn., has spoken about gender inequity at Jewish conferences since the late 1970s.
Chazan says this is the first book to lay out specific steps for changing the Jewish world's culture, and the first to link the issue so clearly to organizational effectiveness.
"Everyone wants to run a more effective organization," she said. "Everything up to now has failed" to close the gender gap.
"This book can help. It holds up a mirror to Jewish organizations and Jewish leaders, so they can assess gender inequity in their organizations and improve it."
If women are so prevalent in every other aspect of American Jewish life, what is keeping them out of the top positions?
Sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman, of Brandeis University, says it's partly about money, that men don't want to give up the lucrative positions. But it's also about prestige.
"Men with power have been very cautious about allowing women to penetrate the highest level of Jewish communal leadership because they're afraid the same thing will happen as elsewhere in Jewish life," said Fishman, who just completed a study on gender imbalance in Jewish life.
"Once the field becomes feminized, it will be very difficult to re-engage men."
Shifra Bronznick, one of three authors of "Leveling the Playing Field," says the will to change is more prevalent now, but the change has to come from below -- the men and women coming up within these organizations.
"People are ready to be part of a change initiative," she said. "This book is aimed at giving them the tools."
Bronznick, who wrote the book with Didi Goldenhar and Marty Linsky, is the founding president of the eight-year-old advocacy group Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community.
She has spent years working on gender inequity issues, devoting much of the early 2000s trying to convince Jewish CEOs and communal leaders to take the problem seriously.
Chazan says that such efforts have a better chance of succeeding today because more Jewish resources are being directed at the problem and researchers such as Cohen, Bronznick and Fishman are producing studies that support the need for change.
"There are statistics connected to the sentiment," Chazan said. "People are suddenly sitting up and listening."
Many of the steps outlined in the new book have been piloted by key Jewish organizations, working together with Advancing Women Professionals. The group collaborated on a United Jewish Communities gender equity project involving 14 federations and worked with regional directors of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism to create rabbinic search criteria aimed at hiring more women rabbis.
In May 2004, the Cleveland Jewish Community Federation assembled 80 local Jewish leaders to discuss the need to bring more women onto all agency boards.