[This article appears as part of a series presented by the SafetyRespectEquity Coalition about the work of Jewish organizations to prevent and address sexual harassment and gender discrimination. By pulling back the curtain on works in progress, the Coalition hopes to inspire others to begin their own crucial reform efforts. You can read the framing piece here.]
By Noga Hurwitz
My first exposure to leadership was in preschool when, at the age of five, I was asked to plan our graduation gala. I was thrilled. Possibilities for celebration feel endless when you are five. However, my selection to the role was accompanied by a stipulation. I couldn’t be “bossy” as a planner.
Mason Quintero, my co-president in BBYO who represents the Aleph Zadik Aleph (AZA), BBYO’s high school fraternity, grew up very differently. “For as long as I can remember, I was always told that I would do great things and have a lot of power. Even in elementary school people would make jokes about me employing them in the future,” Mason shared. “All that really stuck with me is the sentiment of having limitless potential without any barriers in front of me.”
The contrast between the experiences I had as a developing leader and the experiences that Mason had are stark and indicative of our communal mores. The societal messages we internalize as children often disempower women, and I learned early on by implication that there was a defined role for female leaders. Mason was given a different message. What this means is that children and teens, often unknowingly, are learning and adopting constrictive gender roles. This, in turn, adversely affects our leadership potential and future working relationships.
A strong work dynamic is rooted in mutual respect and opportunity. But if young men and women are not building these habits from childhood, why should they be expected to behave differently as adults? Today, conversations about leadership, workforce equality, and gender discrimination primarily exist in the adult world. It makes sense for adults to be engaging in conversations about healthy workplace culture since they comprise the majority of the workforce. However, sparking dialogue about building an equitable workforce only after becoming a professional is too late. Just like learning how to ride a bicycle takes experience and practice, cultivating respectful workplace relationships also requires time and effort.
I first felt fully empowered as a leader eight years after “graduating” preschool when I joined my youth organization, BBYO, at age 13. In my BBYO chapter, which is comprised of 70 high school girls, I was surrounded by inspirational young women who I could look to as role models and offered countless opportunities to lead.
For the past few years, I have developed many skills in an exclusively female environment and have been able to exercise my leadership among groups more representative of the modern workforce. In higher positions of leadership at BBYO, young men and women collaborate on projects and programs, and work together as counterparts in elected board positions. The ability to lead a diverse group of people is important as a teen leader and will undoubtedly continue to serve me throughout my career.
Now, as I spend my year travelling and meeting teen leaders from around the world, I strive to model and facilitate healthy working relationships. As I see more young women find their power, I see the confidence that seeps into every aspect of their lives. The more women who feel this way, the healthier and more evolved our workplaces will become.
Shaping a workforce in which individuals of all genders can work together respectfully and safely requires significant proactive effort. It is important for teenage girls and boys to know how to partner with one another, and for our society to encourage equal leadership regardless of gender. Building muscle memory for healthy working relationships is vital for the success of my generation, especially as we enter the workforce in just a few years. Beginning the conversation in adulthood is too late; it is the habits we train young people in today that will ensure safety, respect, and equity in the future.
While the structure of BBYO is gendered, the organization welcomes Jewish teens of all genders and sexual orientations, as well as backgrounds, socio-economic status and those with a range of intellectual, emotional, and physical abilities.
Noga Hurwitz is the International President (N’siah) of BBYO, the world’s leading pluralistic Jewish teen movement. Representing the B’nai B’rith Girls (BBG), BBYO’s high school sorority, Hurwitz travels around the world and motivates Jewish teens to grow their local programs, strengthen their Jewish communities, and make a difference in the world. She leads her peers at a monumental time of growth for BBYO, with a membership base of over 21,000 teens across North America and an overall reach of tens of thousands of Jewish teens in more than 46 countries around the world.