Advancing Women Professionals: From Catalytic Intervention to Network of Catalysts

by Shifra Bronznick and Barbara Dobkin

Last week, Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community convened 100 institutional leaders, philanthropists, academics, rabbis, educators and advocates. The event, “Changing the Future, Now!” had a distinctive ticket to entry. Each and every person had taken action to advance gender equity – across generation and denomination, from mainstream organizations and start-ups on the margins, from large Reform and Conservative congregations to new women leaders in the Orthodox community.

What was our reason for bringing this stellar group together? At the end of 2015, AWP will close its doors as a formal organization. This is not an exit but an exist strategy. We believe that our impact will be more sustained if we give our growing network the responsibility for carrying the work of gender equity into the next decade and beyond.

This news is actually the natural outcome of what we stated from the outset in 2001 – that AWP would act as a catalytic intervention in the system, rather than a permanent institution. AWP was founded to promote the leadership of women and new models of shared leadership, and to advocate for healthy work-life policies. Our goal has always been to inspire others to adopt and adapt our ideas – to transform their own communities.

At the convening, we showcased people like Sari Ferro, VP of Human Resources at UJA-Federation-NY, who unpacked the strategy that led to flexible work arrangements and paid parental leave. Like Jeremy Burton, head of Boston’s JCRC who pushed back on the news of yet another all-male panel at the local JCC by creating #awesomejewesses – a Twitter feed which rapidly unleashed the names of 160 women experts, leaders and speakers. Like Sara Wolkenfeld, co-facilitator of the groundbreaking Orthodox Leaders Project, who explained that, by taking “Women” off the title, they seek to eliminate an intellectual mechitzah and make normative the presence of women scholars, educators and clergy. Like the graduate students at NYU now assembling the first-ever “map” of leadership in the North American Jewish community, through the gender lens.

AWP is partnering with these allies, activists and ambassadors, and with like-minded organizations. Together we will address the ongoing challenges of gender equity, supported by our new dynamic website. Now our shared goal is to design the next chapter of positive change – to close the gender gap for good, for the good of the Jewish community.

With this announcement, we anticipate surprise, even skepticism. We recognize that it is unusual for a successful nonprofit to wind down operations. So we are taking our constituencies backstage, to show how this latest transition makes sense in our evolution:

When AWP was founded in 2001, men dominated the CEO suites of Jewish organizations and male perspectives dominated Jewish life, despite significant numbers of qualified female executives, scholars, rabbis and intellectuals. The assumption was that women gradually would ascend to leadership. AWP’s mission was to accelerate that timeline.

In Phase 1, our charge was to name and explore the problem: What was holding women back – if 80% of the professionals in our field were women, why were so few women in top leadership positions? Our community needed a common understanding. So we did the research and found the deep-rooted bias in the system – from the old boys’ club in executive search to poor career development and antiquated work-life policy.

We then experimented with different approaches for closing the gender gap, working on two tracks: transforming institutions and supporting individual women leaders. This was Phase 2, in which we drew on many sources of wisdom for advancing gender equity – corporations, academic institutions, politics and the professions. For our pilot projects in major organizations, we customized these best practices to the Jewish context.

At the same time, we launched into Phase 3, by identifying, cultivating and promoting people – talented women, both the veteran professionals and new players from spiritual communities, foundations, publications, start-ups and social justice.

Phase 4 was about a shift in perspective and participation. We had always depended on CEOs to be our champions on gender equity. But we came to believe that everyone had the potential to make change, at every level in the hierarchy. This new orientation was anchored by our 2008 how-to book, Leveling the Playing Field, written with Marty Linsky of Cambridge Leadership Associates, in which we showed how to apply adaptive leadership to the challenges of gender equity. We also designed new programs and campaigns to enlist broader participation – Action Learning Teams, Men as Allies Initiative, the Bay Area Initiatives and our Better Work, Better Life Campaign.

Over the past twelve years, we’ve gone from curating the best strategies from other fields to co-creating innovations with the women and men who work with us – like the pledge against all-male panels and the campaign for paid parental leave and formal flexibility.

In 2013, we see more talented women competing for, and succeeding in, top jobs. More women are recognized as experts and thought leaders. All-male panels and meetings are increasingly the exception. Because of the Better Work, Better Life Campaign, more than 80 Jewish organizations have adopted formal flexibility and/or paid parental leave. And the conversation about gender equity and shared leadership now starts at a higher level.

Our impact and influence inside the Jewish community has radiated outward. Several months ago, a column in the The Atlantic Magazine Online promoted our pledge as a model to eradicate all-male panels in the tech sector. Our advocacy for paid parental leave is fortifying national efforts for putting these issues on the state and federal agenda.

Yes, much work remains to be done. The gender pay gap must be closed once and for all. Gender bias needs to be stripped from the executive search process. Healthy work-life policies need to be the norm in our community, and our institutions desperately need sustainable models of shared leadership. Which is why we are now poised, thirteen years later, to launch our fifth and final phase – the power of the network.

To be sure, AWP is taking a risk, by moving from an organization that acts as watchdog, innovator and agitator to distributing our methodology and messages. Which is why we are taking our time and allocating significant resources to this next phase. Over the next two years, we will create partnerships with organizations that share our values and are capable of integrating gender equity initiatives into their own work. We will support individuals who want to bring their leadership and passions to these issues. We will host large and small convenings to build the network and strengthen accountability by all players. For example, at our latest gathering, 100 participants drafted an ambitious and audacious set of action plans – creating job shares for CEO positions; designing graduate-level curricula in which gender is a central component, and collaborating with A Better Balance and the National Partnership for Women and Families to make paid leave the law of the land.

When we launched AWP, we asked people to join us in supporting this work. Now we are listening hard to changemakers in every corner of our community, to learn how we can support their ideas and initiatives. As they step forward, AWP will step back. Given our experience, this is the healthiest way to ensure that the commitment to gender equity is woven into the fabric of Jewish life.

Shifra Bronznick is the founder and president of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, a strategy and leadership consultant for the social sector, and a senior fellow at NYU Wagner’s Research Center for Leadership in Action. She can be reached at bronznick@betterorg.com

Barbara Dobkin is the co-founder and a board member of AWP, the immediate past Chair of American Jewish World Service, the founding chair of Ma’yan and the Jewish Women’s Archive and a frequent speaker and advisor on women’s philanthropy and leadership. She can be reached at barbara@dobkinfamily.com

For more, see www.advancingwomen.org