By Sybil Sanchez
Many #MeToo #GamAni stories highlight sexually predatory men with seniority over younger women. While I encountered endemic sexism throughout my Zionist and Jewish policy career, I only experienced harassment after achieving some seniority. Without clear human resources practices in place, I approached a trusted board member and a senior colleague regarding two separate instances that I considered actionable. Each time, I was neutrally heard, and each time I chose not to pursue any formal apology or additional steps.
Not wanting to be seen as thin-skinned, I reported these acts out of concern for my boss and how it might reflect on our organizations, rather than out of personal outrage. Having recently shared this in a #GamAni hotline training, I finally realized that had we all focused more on my well-being, I might have responded differently.
Mine are among many instances coming to light within a deeper context that must be recognized. Women are groomed for harassment in Jewish communal life because male dominance remains implicitly normative. The flipside of male dominance is female insignificance. I left my rising career because of it.
Even while observing #GamAni from its inception, I felt just as Salma Hayek described to Oprah Winfrey. “There’s no point for me to talk, because it just happens to everyone.” She goes on, however, “By itself it’s just my own little drama, but when we come together and unite with each other … it’s about evolution … and that can make big change happen.”
Counter to Sylvia Barack Fishman’s recent comment about “valorizing victimhood” in response to allegations against Steven M. Cohen, it’s empowering to use victimization as fodder for broader change. It provides a framework to transcend negative experiences and helps tread a path to new understanding. Nonetheless, I can’t engage in organized Jewish life without flashing back to what it was like to work amidst the subtle yet constant drum of sexism.
To stop endemic harassment, the norm must change. It seems hard for our community to explicitly agree on what sexism is and focus on how it plays out, precisely because it is still so inherent. Maybe that’s why, alongside instilling accountability, we are focused on sexual harassment yet mum about the seemingly petty details of who speaks first or how much (aka mansplaining).
We must challenge the notion that there’s a range of behavior, with violations on one end and “what might be perceived as ordinary public behavior on the other,” as Sylvia Barack Fishman also recently said. The more benign pole of male behavior toward women lays the groundwork for the more malignant. The range itself is at fault.
It’s almost as if sexism in daily life isn’t sexy enough to analyze. It’s not as clearly definable as assault is but that’s in part because some still deem it irrelevant. We need everyone, not just those who struggle with it, to get it. We need to embrace how deeply this impacts our community if we want to see real change.
In an effort to elaborate, here’s a glimpse of my own 15-year Jewish career, including how I handled so-called ordinary sexism and why I ultimately left.
When I first started in Zionist and international affairs, I learned to act as if I didn’t know as much as others and to let men, and other layleaders, speak first. The consequences otherwise were belittlement, off-putting jokes, or general social awkwardness. Likewise, I was taught to never disagree with layleaders. A “kiss up, kick down” mentality prevailed.
After many conferences, I stopped assuming that men, or others, knew more, because they didn’t. I still spoke deferentially, letting layleaders go first because they paid to participate, rather than got paid like me. Senior staff’s opinions held higher social currency. Junior staff stood at the back of the line; literally, when it came to buffets.
I was vigilant about social hierarchy so I could know when to safely let down my guard. This was especially important working on Zionist and international affairs policy within a communal context. Being human rights minded, I often held a minority view.
As I rose up the ranks, I learned how to successfully speak first and pose challenging political questions within an accepted context. If I didn’t, then others would and they wouldn’t necessarily say anything better. Studies were highlighting how verbosity advanced careers and that women needed to initiate more. I slowly gained seniority, which further lent value to my opinion and gave me confidence.
The message ‘don’t be too smart’ persisted, but its implementation changed. I had to check meeting agendas with my bosses. I couldn’t independently determine whether a problem was a priority, even when it was my problem and I knew its priority best. I had little control over my budget and other resources. If I requested more attention than deemed appropriate, I risked criticism for being alarmist or demanding.
Support from above came on a neglect or critique basis. I was either left alone because I was doing well or attended to because I needed correcting. I could sparingly initiate contact. It was acceptable to request project approval or attention to a crisis. I could not readily share a non-urgent problem, brainstorm, or discuss our broader vision. My opinions were available when sought, but rarely given unsolicited. The message was, you do your thing and conduct our marching orders, but don’t ask for too much attention from the big boys.
In fact, “The Boys,” was a catch phrase within a particular circle of women colleagues. We would successfully navigate complex politics until an issue reached a threshold of attention, at which point “The Boys” arrived. Swooping into the midst of our nuance, they would publicize their opinions before we were ready, creating unnecessary controversy and organizational friction along the way. They were the headliners and we were the worker bees.
The higher I got, the harder it got. In one situation, I was barraged with conflicting, personal criticism. It was a stretch position, at a time of personal turmoil to boot. I needed support to grow, but it was unnecessarily harsh and uncoordinated.
My boss and board members said I was overly prescriptive, not directive enough, not substantive enough, and yet, divisively contentious. This conflicting feedback often related to the same meeting. I laughed helplessly when a woman board member sought to mentor me by explaining that I was boring and needed to assert more confidence.
My boss critiqued my style. I over-explained myself, spoke circuitously when problem-solving, and generally wasted his time. Although demoralized, I was also already quite accomplished. I started my career in public speaking as a bilingual United Nations public information assistant. I was once offered the job of spokesperson for a major international organization in Bosnia-Hercegovina. I had spoken at rallies and published op-eds, facilitated groups, taken mediation trainings, and participated in Jewish leadership development courses. I had my Ivy League Master’s degree for over a decade by that point.
I was nonplussed. I integrated their advice and responded as best I could, but absent additional information, I also attributed such overly personal nitpicking to double standards and I soldiered on. I developed our board, achieved measurable external accomplishments, and garnered praise along the way.
But it all took a toll. I was never happy or secure. I chronically doubted the impact of my efforts. I worked on my vision as a leader but it felt shallow as all I could see was a mine field of obstacles. In reference to my move from working on Israel at the UN to energy independence and climate change, a senior colleague casually joked that I had a penchant for the intractable. He had no idea how true that rang nor how deeply it stung. The external politics with which I engaged were indeed complex, but it was always my bosses and colleagues that stressed me more. I was fighting too many battles alone and on too many fronts, and I felt like I was spinning my wheels.
Ultimately, I left Jewish communal service to seek wholeness within myself and stop the constant chatter of self-doubt. When I look back upon that decision with some distance, I see someone who when harassed spoke out of concern for others rather than herself. Who was silenced rather than offended when a board member crossed the line. Who relied on permission to lead because she let others define her authority. Now I know better. I learned, as a friend once advised, to get strategically mad and stand up for myself.
I like being among the smartest in the room and speaking out. I don’t care if I am deemed demanding, judged as less than dynamic, or otherwise criticized in some intangible, gender-laden way. It’s ok to consciously stop being a worker bee and fall out of step when my perspective lends new light. It’s more than ok to openly disagree with someone, regardless of their gender or status.
Finally, in sharing my experience, I am learning to risk criticism without having to shrink or reflexively apologize for who I am. Even so, I worry that former mentors and colleagues will read this and disapprove. It helps that my paycheck no longer relies on handling their judgement. I no longer measure myself by changing standards of professionalism that depend on individual personalities. I still seek to transcend the conflicting messages I have internalized. That includes being myself unapologetically, even when it’s uncomfortable.
Sadly, I had to change careers to do this. As I state in my bio, I am a “recuperating Jewish communal professional.” According to our communal drop-off rate of women in positions of leadership and glaring lack of female executives, I am in good company. #GamAni
Sybil Sanchez is a recuperating Jewish communal professional. Having advocated for antisemitism as a human rights issue and promoted communal policy on energy and climate change, she is now a marketing and communications expert in nonprofit human milk banking.