Gender and Leadership

Marlene Burns ©2011;

Gender and Leadership:
a murky relationship
by Charlie Schwartz

Gazing back at my job search this past spring, I’m now able to notice the subtle trends and patterns that only time and distance can bring into relief, in particular the lack of women in the highest levels of leadership in the organizations I encountered. Time and time again, I found myself interviewing at organizations where charismatic, visionary men occupy the upper echelons of leadership. As a man who hopes to be a leader and visionary in the Jewish world, the question emerges: How can I address issues of gender inequality in Jewish organizational life?

In hindsight, the gender inequality I anecdotally experienced shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Jewish demographers have clearly documented the absence of women from the highest levels of Jewish leadership, even as female participation in Jewish public life increases. The United Jewish Communities in partnership with Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community (AWP) found that in 2006, while women occupied 70% of the Federation workforce, they represented 24% of executives and CEOs. The gender gap is even starker in my field, the Conservative rabbinate, where of the largest class of Conservative synagogues only one has a woman as a senior rabbi. According to a 2004 report, the salary gap among male Conservative rabbis and their female counterparts ranges from $10,000-$24,000.

The need to address issues of gender within the Jewish community is becoming more urgent in the face of a key 21st-century shift in the nature of effective leadership. Uri Brafman’s The Starfish and The Spider uses an apt zoological metaphor to articulate this shift. He equates the old style of organizational leadership with a spider that houses its knowledge, power, and control in a centralized “brain” and thus cannot survive without its head. In contrast to the spider, Brafman depicts starfish organizations as having largely decentralized leadership and power structures. Unlike their spider counterparts, they are not tied to the fate of one person and can regenerate like the arms of a starfish when the need arises. A starfish organization is run by people with high emotional intelligence, empathy, the ability to listen, and many strong social ties – traits which Western society often describes as feminine.

While these new trends might seem to favor a rise in equality in the workplace, Professor Joyce Fletcher notes in her work Paradox of Post Heroic Leadership that the opposite is often true. Fletcher writes, “When women enact the kind of leadership practices that share power or enable and contribute to the development of others, they are likely to be seen as selfless givers who ‘like helping’ and expect nothing in return.” Women who take on the traits of effective 21st-century leadership run the risk of being seen not as exceptional and progressive leaders, but as playing into long-engrained gender roles and stereotypes.

So what is a man engaged in the Jewish world to do? Beginning the conversation about gender is not always easy, as the nature of how gender is developed, expressed, and understood is complex and often very personal. But in spite of this challenge, to be an effective leader, one must delve into the issues of gender and gender disparity to ensure not just that our values are enacted in our institutions, but that our institutions are healthy, productive, and sustainable.

Tips for Gender Equality

In their work Leveling the Playing Field, a guidebook to creating gender equality in the Jewish world, Shifra Bronznick, Didi Goldenhar, and Marty Linsky extensively outline how organizations can adapt to allow for greater gender equality. While the adaptive change necessary for cultivating more diverse and balanced leadership is an in-depth, long-term process, Rabbi Joanna Samuels of AWP (see p. 26) points out three practical places to start.

  1. Make gender an issue. By using gender as a lens to understand dynamics and issues, the difficult questions around how gender plays into leadership will rise to the surface. Don’t shy away from those difficult conversations. Confront those conversations with honesty, directness, and resilience. When assembling panels, scholars, or facilitators, work to ensure a gender balance.
  2. Push organizational policy forward. Explore organizational policy around work-life balance and the options for flexible work schedules, allowing for parents who choose to spend time rearing children to stay in the workforce. The adoption of flexible works schedules can in fact result in a win-win situation for organizations. As Leveling the Playing Field points out, “On the cost side, flexibility decreases staff turnover and absenteeism; on the productivity side, flexibility motivates staff to review work processes, strengthen teamwork, and introduce cross-training – all of which improves organizational effective.”
  3. B’shem omro. We learn from Jewish tradition the importance of quoting a saying from the proper source. The same is true in the organizational world. Ensure that credit for ideas, comments, and work are given to the proper source regardless of gender.

Rabbi Charlie Schwartz is the Director of Digital Engagement and Learning for The Jewish Theological Seminary. He held the 2009 iCenter Chair for Israel Education at the PresenTense Institute, where he co-founded, an educational technology venture.

This post is from the just-released PresenTense leadership issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.