A Look Back From Advancing Women Professionals (and a sneak peak from Slingshot)

[The following essay appears as an introduction to Slingshot ’14-’15, the 10th edition of Slingshot: A Resource Guide to Jewish Innovation. Slingshot publishes this tool annually to highlight Jewish projects throughout North America that creatively meet the needs of today’s Jewish community. We hope you enjoy this sneak peak of Slingshot ’14-’15, which will publish in full in late October of 2014. To pre-order your free copy of the guide, visit www.slingshotfund.org/order.

Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community (AWP) has played a critical role in closing the gender gap in the Jewish community. From its early research uncovering the deep-rooted bias in the system through its series of successful experiments intended both to change institutional policies and support individual leaders, AWP’s persistent and strategic leadership has made a measurable impact on the Jewish landscape.

We have featured AWP in Slingshot for ten consecutive years because we consider it one of the most comprehensive approaches to systemic change in the Jewish world. This year, in anticipation of AWP’s planned closing at the end of 2015, we invited them to write the opening essay of this 10th anniversary edition in order to celebrate their contributions, learn from their experiences, and inspire new thinking. Read on to learn more.]

The Continuum of Change

By Shifra Bronznick, Hillary Leone, and Didi Goldenhar

Over the past thirteen years, AWP has experimented with different strategies to integrate gender equity into the fabric of Jewish life. The most radical – and we hope the most transformative – has been our decision to close as a formal organization in 2015 in order to shift the responsibility for carrying on the work of gender equity to our growing network. We believe that this new leadership model inspires bold thinking, stimulates effective action, and broadens support for women’s advancement. It’s not an exit strategy; it’s an exist strategy – and the key to enduring, systemic change.

We knew early on that our success depended on our ability to move people and organizations along the continuum of change, from awareness to caring to action. To spur this progression and encourage ownership, we embedded “action” into every initiative, from the Op-Ed Project to Action Learning Teams, from Men as Allies to Better Work Better Life. In each case, we asked people to act on their values. Their cumulative actions set into motion a cycle of positive change.

Today’s environment invites a deeper and broader commitment to shared leadership and equity. With fresh eyes and a readiness to take action, leaders in our network have already begun to use gender as a lens and laboratory for the next phase of change. As we look ahead, we reflect on what our story reveals about the mechanisms of effective action, and we find meaning in exploring these ideas with the Slingshot community of change makers with whom we share a commitment to innovation and impact. Here’s our story. We hope it helps to illuminate the path forward.

We started by creating awareness.

Women have always been the “no problem/problem” in the Jewish community. When we set out, we confronted an overwhelming complacency about the significant gender gap in leadership. Our first task was to reveal the community’s deep bias about women’s leadership, rooted in cultural stereotypes and sustained by a dominant old boys’ network, inflexible work-life policies, and limited professional development opportunities.

Through a wide-ranging set of conversations, workshops, action-research projects, and public presentations, we engaged hundreds of stakeholders from volunteer leaders, board members and funders, to CEOs, mid-level professionals, and entry-level staff. This work developed a shared understanding of the complexity of the challenge. By revealing the problem, we stimulated a new awareness of the need for change on every level.

We knew change would only happen if people cared enough to make change.

One of the revolutionary aspects of our approach was a refusal to play the role of the expert who explained to people how to “add women and stir.” Instead, we insisted that organizational leaders and their teams work alongside us to create solutions. Through this approach, we sought to create the conditions that allowed people to invest more deeply in the outcomes – to care more.

Encouraging CEOs, funders, and board members to care was not easy, especially since “caring” often required organizational leaders to contemplate a major overhaul of existing practices. Our strategy focused on how changes that benefited women also strengthened the organization and the community. By persisting in connecting the issues that mattered to organizational leaders, such as effectiveness and excellence, with our agenda of advancing women, we succeeded in stimulating a commitment to both.

While we did not succeed in every project, nor did we persuade every person to take up the charge, we did make connections everywhere, at every level. Over the years, we offered support and encouragement to our growing cadre of allies. They, in turn, continued to deepen their commitments to gender equity and to work on dismantling bias and advancing women in their respective spheres of influence.

We spurred people to take action and women to lead.

Working with a wide range of individuals and organizations, we created initiatives that required taking specific action. Often, we asked people to announce their commitments publicly as a way to build momentum and inspire others to participate. We asked men to refrain from speaking on all-male panels, and CEOs to change their work-life policies on parental leave and formal flexibility. We asked event organizers to showcase women, and search committees to create unbiased selection criteria and expand the diversity of the talent pool. We asked senior managers to act on gender pay disparities. And we asked women to lead. AWP helped individual women advance by promoting and mentoring them, expanding opportunities for visibility in prominent venues, creating peer networks, and influencing executive search processes.

Women, in every sphere, seized the opportunity. They built new spiritual communities, took on prominent roles as heads of Jewish social justice organizations, became editors-in-chief of national publications, took the helm as CEOs of foundations, JCCs, and social service agencies, launched start-ups, and stepped up to become senior rabbis of large congregations. Women shattered glass ceilings at large city Federations as well as in the Orthodox world, where the first rabba founded a new seminary to ordain women.

Women have changed the face of leadership in Jewish life. We find no better evidence of this sea change than in the ten years of Slingshot guides, where women lead almost two-thirds of the organizations and initiatives celebrated for innovation, strong leadership, effectiveness, and impact.

We begin again in a new place.

As more women – and the next generation of men – step into leadership in this new landscape, the focus shifts from access to impact. Women and men actively ask how to redefine leadership and create healthy workplaces. As they move along the continuum of change, from awareness to caring to action, they see possibilities and discover new paths. They root the change that we seeded.

This is sustained impact.

Shifra Bronznick, Hillary Leone, and Didi Goldenhar
The AWP Team