It’s Time To Talk About Gender … Again

By Dr. Hal M. Lewis

As a Professor and the CEO of an Institute dedicated to growing lay and professional leaders, I am increasingly concerned that even our most enlightened programs of training and development are failing to address critical issues related to gender in the nonprofit workplace.[1] Approaching this season of introspection and reflection, my hope is that as a Jewish community we can shine a new light on these matters, which we ignore at our peril. I arrive at these conclusions not because I am so sophisticated or progressive, but because, as Rabbi Hanina might say[2], I have learned the most about this issue from my female graduate students and alumnae.

My concerns go well beyond the issues first brought to our attention several years ago by the pioneers in the field, Shifra Bronznick and her colleagues, who taught us about glass ceilings, gender inequity, work-life balance, family friendly policies, and leveling the playing field. With reverence, we stand on their shoulders even as we (and they) must now contemplate new challenges pertaining specifically to how we teach about gender in leadership.

In suggesting that we must go beyond those first generation issues, I do not mean to imply that we are even close to having resolved them. Anyone in Jewish life who believes we no longer have a problem because the number of female CEOs has increased, or because a few intrepid scholars now insist that they will only appear on panels that are gender balanced, or even because more organizations than ever have adopted maternity and paternity leave policies, is missing the point.

Despite these significant accomplishments, we now know that puncturing the glass ceiling is only part of the issue. Many women with no stated interest in the number one slot still face enormous challenges as leaders. And even in those organizations that have adopted the right personnel policies, there is still much to be done when it comes to training men and women about the challenges of gender in today’s Jewish organizational infrastructure.

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Though there is considerable research from both the Jewish community and the corporate arena delineating challenges women face when climbing the leadership ladder – issues that range from family responsibilities to the presence of blatant discrimination, and the absence of mentorship – we rarely discuss these things in our leadership training programs. Nor are we bringing the sometimes-harsh realities of the workplace into our classroom analyses. Failure to talk about these obstacles to growth means that our female and male leaders are not being supported in their career trajectories, and they are not being sensitized to the critical impact these issues have on their own work and the future of their organizations.

As we endeavor to fine-tune our training programs – locally and nationally – the issue of leadership style must be addressed head on. Though there is scholarly disagreement about the existence of a so-called male or female approach to leading, there is considerable research supporting the notion that there may, in fact, be real differences in the way women and men: negotiate, supervise, take risks, argue, compete and collaborate. We owe it to ourselves as a community to understand more about how our male and female leaders lead and what we can learn and teach others from those experiences.

Also important to examine in this regard are distinctions in the way people respond to leaders of different genders, a classic example of which is how aggressive behavior in a man is perceived as strength, while a woman behaving similarly is understood to be nasty, bossy, or worse. A related matter pertains to what is often called “benevolent sexism,” when male supervisors are well intentioned and try to do the right thing, but nevertheless behave in ways that reaffirm antiquated notions about women needing to be protected. This too is an area that should be included in our training programs for aspiring leaders regardless of gender.

Even as the thinking in these areas is far from monolithic, imagine the potential upside if we took the time to talk with both women and men about the differences between stereotypically male (agentic) and female (collaborative/communal) approaches to leadership. These discussions might then be followed by an exploration of a variety of hybrid models, in which the best of agentic and collaborative styles (sometimes referred to as an androgynous style of leadership) becomes a useful prototype for contemporary nonprofit leaders. Not insignificantly, these latter approaches share a great deal with classical Jewish teachings on leadership and should be incorporated into today’s training programs.

Notwithstanding the fact that these more enlightened approaches to effective leadership are informed by both Jewish tradition and best practices from academe, they must still be viewed, at least in part, through the lens of gender. In my own classes, for example, our students learn about the virtues of anavah, humility in leadership, and about power sharing and collaboration, particularly as they apply in a nonprofit setting.

Yet, while women and men appreciate the objective potency of these concepts, the reality is they do not always see the same things when refracting leadership through the prism of their own experiences. As a female student recently pointed out, “he [a male classmate] can afford to be humble at work. He’s already perceived as confident and competent. When I am humble I am most likely to be perceived as weak and insecure.” Similarly, following a discussion of shared power and collaboration, a recent alumna told me that while she embraces the wisdom of “putting the right people around the table” in order to make better decisions, she worries that as a woman she will be thought of as incompetent and unable to make tough decisions herself, if she doesn’t project a more aggressive persona.

To be clear, I believe that humble leaders are better leaders and that, particularly in the nonprofit arena, leaders who collaborate are far more effective than those who insist upon a top-down, command and control style. But leadership training must do more than convey important concepts of effective leadership. And we must be sure not to paint with too broad a brush. Even the most progressive insights must be coupled with the realities of the contemporary nonprofit workplace.

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To make explicit what I have already intimated, women are not the only ones who need to grapple with the challenges of being a woman leader. Interviews I conducted with my alumni suggest that male colleagues, supervisors, and direct reports need an understanding of the dynamics at play as well. Published data about the experience of female leaders that is well corroborated, and broadly acknowledged by women, seem to astound many male coworkers. While women, for example, are long familiar with the dynamic of having their ideas ignored or dismissed, only to be embraced later when articulated by a man, many men remain unaware that this even happens. Similarly, workplace research affirms that men tend to interrupt their female colleagues at much higher rates, yet few men indicate any understanding that this is the case. Other examples of issues long known to women leaders but largely unknown or ignored by their male counterparts include: the widely reported sense that women must be better than their male colleagues just to keep pace, the disproportionately onerous challenges women with children face as they try to navigate the organizational hierarchy, and the fact that knowledgeable men are often thought of as well-versed, while a knowledgeable woman must guard against being dismissed as a “know it all.”

I am not making the argument that an understanding of these issues is all it takes to effect real change. Nor would I suggest that every male leader cares enough to do so. I do believe, however, that programs of leadership training have an obligation to explore these matters in depth as a prelude to effectuating changes in attitude. While I may be naive, I remain convinced that some of the challenges we face with regard to gender in leadership are the result of ignorance not malevolence.

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My focus to this point has been on the need to train our entry- to mid-career level communal professionals about the impact of gender in leadership. While essential, that is only part of the task. CEOs, donors, and board members can play outsized roles in addressing some of these issues. Here again, it is my contention that since part of the problem stems from cluelessness and insensitivity not pure prejudice, much can be accomplished by expanding the training we provide to senior leaders. Sadly, however, these veterans are the least likely to receive training, which only exacerbates an already challenging situation.

The Hebrew folk expression – ba’al ha’me’a hu ba’al ha’de’a – the master of the coin is the master of the idea is a perfect summary of life in an eleemosynary system. Philanthropists, foundations, and trustees have it within their power to exert significant influence within their organizations. So too, though for slightly different reasons, do well-respected chief executives. It is critical, therefore, that leadership training programs help prepare and sensitize an organization’s highest echelon to the impact personal behaviors and institutional policies can have in either advancing or impeding women as leaders within their enterprise. This begins with recognizing that gender in leadership must be included as a part of the training agenda. It requires female and male faculty members capable of introducing relevant research, who are also able to facilitate meaningful group exchanges around key issues. And, most importantly, it requires a Problem-Based Learning Approach, in which participants drive the discussion and work through real-world issues with the help of their co-learners and instructors.

In addition, and painful as it is to acknowledge, our senior leaders, both lay and professional, must be trained specifically to understand issues related to sexual harassment and abuse in our Jewish nonprofit organizations. Today we have real reason to be concerned. Though the plural of “anecdote” is not “data,” we can no longer turn a blind eye to the steady flow of testimonies from female employees, including rabbis, development professionals and CEOs, that attest to: sexual innuendo, inappropriate touching, off-color jokes, propositions, and more. While a variety of research has been published, including a 1993 survey that found that 70% of women rabbis have been sexually harassed, there is more recent and deeply disturbing material that has yet to be released publically.

One such analysis suggests that as many as 40% of female fundraisers and significant numbers of women CEOs have experienced inappropriate sexual advances from supervisors and donors. Female development officers, including some of my own alumnae, report rising levels of concern when, in the name of good stewardship, they are asked to meet a donor at his office or for drinks. Reports of inappropriate contact at conferences or parlor events are not uncommon. Some women have even noted attempts to leverage a financial contribution to their organization in return for a subsequent “social” engagement. While no reported incidents sunk to the level of what some respondents termed, “Ari Shavit-like” in nature (referencing the Israeli writer who admitted to being the journalist accused of assaulting a reporter from the LA Jewish Journal), these reports scream out for our collective attention. I would appeal to those who have assembled these as-yet-unreleased-data to publish them, and if their research methodologies are not up to professional standards (as some have suggested), I would hope they would turn to those in the academy who can help them, and the rest of us, secure accurate information. For the sake of all the principles we hold dear, suggestions of widespread sexual harassment across Jewish communal organizations cannot be allowed to fester.

Understanding the situation is the first step. Training senior leaders and victims of harassment to deal with these matters is the next. While we need not reinvent the wheel, as there are many valuable resources to help nonprofits in this regard, we must acknowledge that this will not be easy. If, as suggested, some of our community’s leaders and philanthropists are, in fact, part of the problem, we must confront this directly, with clarity and determination. Concerted efforts must be made to incorporate a full exploration of these matters into our programs of leadership training.

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Those of us who care about the future of Jewish communal leadership cannot afford to rest on the laurels of the status quo. While we take pride in the progress made to date, we must acknowledge that there is so much more to do when it comes to enhancing the development of the women and men who lead our communities. In my work at Spertus I have come to recognize that as an Institute for Jewish Leadership we are obligated to re-evaluate what we teach about gender in leadership. We have modified our course work to include expanded discussions about the issues identified in this piece, and we will continue to do so. We seek to learn more about the experiences of our female graduate students and alumnae as they attempt to synthesize their leadership studies with the organizational realities at work. We will continue to probe these matters with our male students as well. Through our Center for Jewish Leadership, we are expanding our public programming to help professionals and lay leaders take concrete steps to enhance the leadership of the women in our organizations. We claim no monopoly in this arena and in the New Year ahead invite colleagues to be in touch, to share their experiences, insights, failures and successes.

[1] I acknowledge that for some, my interest in exploring these matters may be suspect, both because I am a man, and because definitions of gender identity are evolving beyond traditional binary categories. In the course of my investigation I consulted with a number of well-respected female researchers, including one of the country’s preeminent scholars of gender and leadership. Each urged me to continue my exploration. This paper is a testament to their encouragement.
[2] I am pleased to provide a full list of source citations for interested readers.

Dr. Hal M. Lewis is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. A recognized expert on Jewish leadership, he has published widely in the scholarly and popular press. His books include: Models and Meanings in the History of Jewish Leadership and From Sanctuary to Boardroom: A Jewish Approach to Leadership. You can follow his blog, “Growing Leaders” at He can be reached at president