The Gender Disconnect

The Jewish communal world has a problem. Well, several, but today let’s focus on one: the continuing gender gap in North American Jewish organizations.

A recently released study, titled Jewish Communal Professionals in North American: A Profile, provides an unprecedented look of over 2000 Jewish communal professionals throughout the United States and Canada. Commissioned by The Jewish Communal Service Association and conducted by the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University’s Wagner Graduate School, the study provides the first in-depth look, across the organizational divide, at who is working in U.S. Jewish communal institutions, their education, responsibilities, training, compensation and more.

The results are disturbing – especially regarding the continuing gender pay and leadership inequalities that exists across the communal landscape.

Women make up around two-thirds of all Jewish communal professionals, yet represent only 12 percent of leadership. They significantly lag behind men in compensation, with an overall gap of $28,000! Adjusting for age, years in the field, level of responsibility, hours worked, and degrees earned, women’s salaries still trail men’s by about $20,000.


Is it because many opt to work for smaller organizations that happen to have smaller budgets? Is it because women are not as strong at the negotiating table? Or men are stronger in marketing themselves? Or is it, plain and simple, gender discrimination – are women just not provided the same opportunities?

Jerry Silverman, the president and CEO of Jewish Federations of North America has said, “I don’t know that we’ve put enough emphasis on grooming women, building their capabilities, expertise, leadership.” That’s probably true, and the federation system certainly has not been setting any examples in this regard. It’s only recently, in San Francisco, that a woman has been selected CEO of a big city federation.

Writing this time last year in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Shifra Bronznick and Didi Goldenhar (professionals at Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community) said,

“If women – the majority of the work force – are not being cultivated for chief-executive posts, nonprofit groups are not making the best use of the dollars and professional development that they have already invested in their staffs. The persistence of the gender gap also signals a complacency that is at odds with the values and can-do spirit of these mission-driven organizations.”

And where is the seat of this problem? With the communal leadership.

Communal leadership is, correctly, entrusted with the responsibility of managing its respective organizations. Communal leadership sets not only the agenda, but more importantly, the tone. And the lagging influence by women in many organizations does the community a disservice.

Why is all this so important?

Besides just plain fairness, all the organizations – from the smallest start-up to the largest federations – need to harness the very best talent that’s out there. They need to not only attract, but also retain, the creme of the crop to drive their agendas forward. Seasoned talent is needed to fill the thousands of expected vacancies as baby boomers begin to retire.

The gender disconnect is also a mindset. How can it not accurately reflect the community’s make-up? Women play such a powerful role in Jewish life. They disproportionately choose employment in Jewish organizations only to find themselves languishing in junior positions – choked off from the air of advancement. Too many organizations are still run like “old boys clubs.” And, until this mind-set is changed, the problem will continue to fester. First, it is necessary to admit that there is a problem and then to speak about it publicly and often.

The Forward newspaper has been one of the very few voices speaking on this issue; other Jewish media need to join them. The depth of the problem needs to be dealt with and also the failure to really move forward during the past few years.

It is necessary to speak out when panels, or contest winners, are not gender balanced. If this doesn’t happen, there will be little or no incentive to act differently in the future.

Unlike many other challenges the community faces today, this one can be rectified with some good planning and fairer advancement and compensation policies. All have a responsibility to do their part in not just breaking the glass ceiling, but helping to level the playing field.

As several Hillel students declared, at the recent New Orleans General Assembly of the Federation system, the Jewish world is still an exciting place to work. Everyone should pitch in and address this most important issue.

Like so much else, events have moved beyond conversation. Results are all that count going forward.

This article appears in The Jerusalem Report, December 6, 2010 issue.
image: Avi Katz (The Jerusalem Report)

Be sure to also read Jewish Community: Zero?, an article on the lack of women finalists in the Jewish Community Heroes contest.

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  1. says

    Great piece. Thank you for writing such a comprehensive yet concise article on this vexing issue. Thanks especially for your mention of all-male panels — a pernicious way that gender inequity gets embedded in our communal consciousness.

  2. says

    It is disheartening how many years this issue has remained an intractable part of our Jewish communal culture. Despite Shifra Bronznick’s focus and perseverance, not much has changed over the past decade. Things will only change when the women in our organizations take ownership of the issue and get vocal in ways that may be uncomfortable. Using traditional approaches just has not worked. It bears noting that important cultural shifts almost always come from the ranks when enough people coalesce around an idea and an impassioned voice of leadership emerges. Maybe 2011 can be that year–but only if the women affected decide they are ready to fight for change. If change is going to ever happen, Jewish women in our organizations will need to make this their issue. Are there a few good women out there ready to lead?

  3. says

    I am curious if this is the case in the non-Jewish /general philanthropy world? In any case until women learn to stand up for themselves they will continue to be at the bottom of the salary list. Maybe address this in informal settings within the community and train in negotiation?

  4. Dan Brown says

    Prof. Steven Cohen, the lead researcher on the project, tells me the Jewish world is a mirror of larger society in this respect.

  5. says

    While my brief research shows this gap is also common in other fields, I believe this issue is particularly important for us for (at least) two reasons. First, we should hold ourselves to a higher ethical standard than society at large. Now that we know this information, we are obligated to act on it. Second, for the Jewish community to thrive, we must actively recruit and retain the best professionals. Both compensation and family-friendly policies (which, by the way, are important for both men and women) are critical components of what employees are looking for. While we should hold ourselves to a higher moral standard, we’ll need to acknowledge the practical drivers of building the future success of our field too.

  6. Terry M Rubenstein says

    Thank you for shining a light on this continuing issue. I am 61 and it seems I have been working on this issue for 40 years. I remember the sense of elation when I was in San Francisco and Geraldine Ferraro got the nomination for Vice President. So little has changed. In Baltimore, many of the important non profits are run by women; but we have never done a salary scan. That could be interesting.

  7. Ruthie Warshenbrot says

    This is definitely a problem beyond the Jewish world – in general, and specifically in the nonprofit world where women make up 75% of the work force yet only 45% hold the position of CEO and only 1 in 10 women can be found in upper management compared to 1 in 5 men (according to The White House Project’s study Benchmarking Women’s Leadership,

    I would argue that it is not just up to women to be “ready to fight the fight” and stand up on this issue, but as Dan says, it is really the responsibility of the leadership of our communal institutions — many of whom are not women. When the Jewish Federations of North America says publicly that there is not a glass ceiling in the Jewish community to the Jewish Week (, a major Jewish organization speaking to a major Jewish media source, it does not acknowledge a reality which the facts show.

  8. Larry Kaufman says

    With all due regard for the sexism, prejudice, whatever else you want to call it, that leads to gender discrimination, there is another factor which cannot be ignored: women professionals who, for whatever reason, opt out in favor of the Mommie track.

    Has anyone taken a look at the number by gender of rabbis ten years after ordination? Forgetting about how many have advanced to Senior positions — what percentage of the men have left, vs. what percentage of the women?

    It’s no secret that in a family where both parents are employed, and where they nominally share household responsibilities, the greater burden still falls on the woman. Let’s not blame discrimination as the sole problem; self-selection also plays a role.

  9. says

    Dear Larry,

    Sorry, but I’m not buying it. Our community is built around the ideal of Jewish families raising good, smart, healthy children for the strength of our future. Since when is motherhood “self-selective”? Go forth and multiple, but then you’re on your own? That’s the antithesis of what the Jewish community is or should be about.

    ~ Maya

    The New Jew: Blogging Jewish Philanthropy & Social Innovation

  10. Larry Kaufman says

    Maya — I’m not talking about ideals. I’m talking about numbers. Just asking that someone take a look at the rabbinic class of 2000 from JTS and HUC — what percentage of the male ordinees are still working in the pulpit or organizational rabbinate? What percentage of the female ordinees are still working in the pulpit or organizational rabbinate?

    And did those who are not (of either gender) opt out or get pushed out?

  11. Ellie Klein says

    Maya and Larry: The things that I look for in a job now that I have a 3 year old and a 6 month old are significantly different than what I looked for before I became an “Ima.” That said, I recently interviewed for a camp director position and the interviewing panel was worried about my ability to be effective in my professional role with a baby at camp. I really cannot imagine this being a concern if I was an “Abba” interviewing for the same position. Please correct me if I am wrong.

  12. Terry M Rubenstein says

    Ellie, I find your situation appalling on many levels and of course they wouldn’t have the same concern as a male director; the assumption would be that the woman or someone else, would be taking care of the baby. What’s so silly about the whole notion, is that having babies and children in camp enhances the experience. My daughter-in-law and son own a sleep away camp and have had babies and pregnancies throughout the camping season. That experience has enhanced community life for the campers immensely; and of course my grandchildren have the advantage of being adored and loved. Too bad all kids can’t grow up in a summer camp! But frankly, with those kinds of assumptions by potential employers, it probably woulnd’t have been a good fit anyway!

  13. ARKleiman says

    The issue of retention of the best of the best is an important issue. I spent my 1st 8 years in the non-porfit field running a Community Foundation at a Jewish Federation. This was after spending 8 years practicing law. As a reward for my efforts, a man was brought in above me, and I left the Jewish communal world not long after. While I have remained in non-profits, often in greater leadership roles, I have not returned to the Jewish communal world. I know of other women who’ve worked as Jewish communal professionals as well who have left & will not return; partly due to the inequity discussed in the article, but also due to the feeling of not being valued as much as in other non-profits. Still an active volunteer, I would hope this would change sooner rather than later, or we will lose many valuable and talented professionals.

  14. says

    I’m a younger professional and I think there are a lot of dimensions to this problem. One, of my friends who work in the field it is definitely the women who drop their hours or quit altogether when they become parents. Even the ones with husbands in the Jewish communal service field. Two, men simply won’t work for the low pay that is offered in the junior level jobs and since someone has to do these jobs, it’s women who take the pay cut and work for less than what they are worth or could earn in the for-profit sector. Three, we say our organizations are family-friendly but then we don’t really put that into practice. Compared to the flexible scheduling available in the for-profit sector, we still lag far behind. Four, there are some lay boards that do discriminate and ask the inappropriate questions and that’s what you see in cases like Ellie’s described above.

    Like any major challenge, we need many solutions to solve this problem and it’s great to see so many of us tackling it together.