Gender and Leadership: Small Changes, Big Results

by Rabbi Elizabeth Richman

Earlier this month, Advancing Women Professionals announced its transition from a catalytic intervention to a network of catalysts. AWP has had a profound effect on the Jewish communal landscape because it took an enormous societal problem – gender inequality – and gave organizations clear suggestions for HR policies that would help address the problem.

As someone who is proud to be part of AWP’s network, I want to add to the conversation and offer some lessons that we at Jews United for Justice have learned about how programmatic changes can also impact gender inequity. We found that even small changes could yield big results.

Each year JUFJ selects 16 young Jews for the DC Jeremiah Fellowship, a leadership program for 20- and 30-something adults that we share with Bend the Arc. Through weekend retreats and three-hour bi-weekly sessions, the group learns leadership and activism skills, and studies local DC issues like immigration, workers’ rights, and affordable housing, all in a Jewish context. In most years, the majority of our Fellows are women. In 2011, a funder challenged us to see this gender dynamic as an unprecedented opportunity. The Tikkun Olam Women’s Foundation, and one of its individual members, provided funding to add an explicit “gender lens” to our Jeremiah Fellowship curriculum in order to explore how gender impacts leadership and social issues, and help young women become even better leaders and changemakers.

With our funder’s encouragement we made some modest curriculum changes that yielded significant results for all our participants, male and female. We believe that other leadership development programs can implement similar changes without substantial cost and still see similar benefits. Here’s what we did and what we learned:

  1. We asked every speaker or trainer to discuss how their issue or skill specifically affects women. This seemingly simple addition led to rich new conversations about the intersection of gender and the critical issues of our time. For example, in our unit on immigration one presenter spoke about how the federal Secure Communities program (which requires police to share the immigration status of suspects with US immigration services) seriously impacts women by making immigrant victims of domestic violence less likely to report abuse for fear they may be deported.
  2. We designed our mix of speakers and trainers to feature strong female leaders with a variety of life and career trajectories and to model different ways of balancing work with family life, something we know is particularly crucial for women. We arranged for a mix of younger and older female presenters, hoping the Fellows would discern possible life trajectories from one stage to another. We purposely introduced the Fellows to prominent women leaders: rabbis, executive directors, and founders of organizations. Whatever their formal topic was, we also asked presenters to share their personal journey to activism or leadership as well as their contact information, so Fellows could continue the relationship afterward.
  3. We provided formal and informal training on skills that are particularly important for women, including public speaking, negotiation, meeting facilitation, and how to “show up” and participate in groups. We also modified the anti-racism/anti-oppression training curriculum to include a focus on gender issues. The Fellows reflected on how they have been affected by gender stereotypes and practiced methods for countering those stereotypes.
  4. Perhaps most importantly, we simply named the issue. We were open with participants about the addition of the gender lens to the curriculum and regularly invited them to analyze – in a safe, supported way – their own group dynamics around gender.

We saw impactful results from these modest changes. On the most basic level, participants finished the program with a better understanding of the challenges facing our community and of the critical but often hidden ways that gender plays into hot-button contemporary issues. They now have better skills and drive to address those issues. More than half the Fellows went on to take key leadership roles in our immigrant, LGBT, and workers’ rights campaigns that impact tens of thousands of women and girls in the DC region. In many cases, the Fellows deliberately chose roles that put them outside their previous areas of comfort and expertise. We are proud to be pushing young women to take on more leadership.

Adding a gender lens to the program also helped participants reflect on their own lives and identities and imagine new ways to grow as leaders. A number of female Fellows reported that because of the way we framed the program they deliberately pushed themselves – and succeeded – in becoming more vocal and assertive in group settings. We believe that addressing the issues of gender, power, and leadership head-on made it more possible for women to assert and extend themselves with pride and energy.

Over the course of the year, the Fellows became increasingly conscious of gender dynamics in the group and pushed themselves and each other to act with integrity against gendered power dynamics. Learning to spot the issues and getting guidance on how to respond helped participants became more secure in their skills and ability to speak up. We saw women and men raising issues and offering solutions around gender dynamics in the group.

Finally, the group became a place where both women and men could bring the gender-related issues they were struggling with, including unequal salaries, discriminatory attitudes, and inadequate family leave policies at work. The group did informal peer coaching on its own initiative, and as the facilitator I was able to connect them with outside professional resources like the superb staff at AWP.

Adding a focus on gender to the Jeremiah Fellowship curriculum helped us better educate all of our participants on key social justice issues and provide a stronger combination of skills training and support that resulted in more confident and skilled leaders. We learned five key lessons that other leadership training programs could easily adapt:

  1. Start by naming the issue. Though it is fashionable in some settings to behave as though we have overcome (at least some of) the “isms,” the reality is that gender – and race, class, ethnicity, and sexual orientation – still have major impacts on our lives. By raising the issue of gender and creating space for honest conversations about it, we not only raise the awareness of our leaders, but we give them permission and the ability to talk about the problems.
  2. Use the opportunity to showcase the many talented female leaders in our communities. By presenting these role models we help participants think more broadly about what is possible for them to achieve.
  3. Focus attention on key skills. Women face unique challenges in the workplace and in leadership roles. By providing training on public speaking, negotiation, facilitation, and group participation we can help emerging women leaders tackle the challenges they face.
  4. Include men in the conversation. Too often the community assumes that these conversations should be had by women alone. By including men, we raise their understanding of the issues and engage them as allies in addressing the issues. One male participant commented that the program had “reignited his own feminist commitments.”
  5. The leader matters. These are hard issues and there are few venues where emerging leaders can talk about them in person in mixed-gender groups. None of this works unless participants trust the leader to create a space that is safe for them to make mistakes and be vulnerable.

Implementing these simple changes made for a richer and more powerful program – one that benefitted all of our Fellows, both men and women. What simple changes could you make to your own programming that would benefit your organization and your participants, and what else could we do to build on our success?

Rabbi Elizabeth Richman is Program Director and Rabbi in Residence at Jews United for Justice.