Lifting Up Women Leaders in the Time of COVID-19

By Nancy K. Kaufman and Lori Weinstein

Whether it is as leaders of countries (Germany, New Zealand, Iceland, Finland), or as leaders of corporations and foundations and nonprofit organizations in and outside the Jewish community, women have been demonstrating their unique ‘courageous leadership’ skills during this COVID-19 Pandemic. As Tom Friedman so astutely pointed out in his recent NYTimes op-ed (4/21/20) “in a time of crisis, like we are in now, with people feeling frightened and uncertain, leadership doesn’t just matter more. It matters exponentially more.”

In our own Jewish community, it is predominantly women who are juggling the many different roles of parenting young children, putting food on the table, worrying about aging parents AND meeting the day to day responsibilities of either leading their organizations as CEOs or supporting the male leaders of their organizations as COOs or senior staff members. What is it that distinguishes women leaders and makes them particularly effective in this time of enormous stress and societal upheaval? According to the recent Harvard Business Review article (4/1/20), there are “7 Leadership Lessons Men Can Learn from Women.” In the article, Cindy Gogol and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic point out something that seasoned women leaders have believed for quite some time in the Jewish community: “Gender differences in leadership effectiveness (what it takes to perform well) are out of sync with gender differences in leadership emergence (what it takes to make it to the top).” According to the authors, “large quantitative studies, including meta-analyses, indicate that gender differences in leadership talent are either nonexistent, or they actually favor women.”

Fortunately, a few years ago Jewish communal foundations decided to invest in a “pipeline project” that is now known as Leading Edge. In their fourth study about “What Makes Jewish Organizations Great Places to Work?,” published in the Fall of 2019, they state what has become well known to us in the Jewish community: “Approximately two-thirds of the total workforce in the Jewish nonprofit sector is female. When it comes to leadership positions, however, approximately two-thirds are held by men.” The report goes on to say that “achieving gender parity in leadership is the right thing to do and is also critical to solving the complex problems facing our community today.” This has never been truer than it is now as we navigate our way forward to what will be a radically different post-COVID Jewish communal world.

The time is ripe for our community to recognize and support the voices of women (and other marginalized non-white male leaders in our midst) and not only those who are in CEO positions right now (although there are not enough of them). At the end of the day, as the authors of the HBR article conclude, “increasing female representation in leadership would augment rather than reduce meritocracy. The best gender equality intervention is to focus on equality of talent and potential – and that only happens when we have gender-equal leadership to enable men to learn different leadership approaches from women as much as women have always been told to learn leadership approaches from men.”

Beyond embracing different leadership approaches, how do we lift up women leaders and embrace their unique leadership styles as the post COVID world shapes Jewish organizational life? While none of us know exactly what the world we do know that effective leadership will require flexibility, perseverance, compassion, partnership and teamwork – skill sets where women continue to excel. Women are much more likely to seek collaborative models for working together as they look for new ways to solve old problems and embrace fresh ideas for building innovation in programs and services.

One danger of this crisis is that as we pivot to meet its challenges, we fall back on the ingrained systems that we had already begun to discard. Jewish communal organizations and philanthropies had already begun investing in supporting social change around gender equity and diversity. These critical commitments have resulted in reasons to feel hopeful. Networks like Safety Respect Equity serve as a philanthropic conscience and resource for our goal of creating a safe and inclusive community. Organizations like JWI, NCJW, Moving Traditions and Jewish Women’s Funds are leading work to train, empower and embolden women’s leadership. Yet there is still so much work that needs to be done.

When we finally emerge from this pandemic, we will have the opportunity to reconfigure our communal institutions. It is time to stop saying there are no women leaders stepping forward to take on C-suite leadership roles. There is a robust pipeline of women leaders, but they need to be supported and treated with greater respect. Let’s take our Jewish values and put them into action in order to build a stronger, more vibrant and inclusive Jewish community.

Nancy K. Kaufman is the immediate past CEO of National Council of Jewish Women and the former Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. Prior to working in the Jewish community, she held senior positions in state and local government in Massachusetts. Kaufman is currently the Principal in NKK Strategic Consulting in NYC.

Lori Weinstein is the CEO emerita of JWI (Jewish Women International) which she led from 1999-2019. She is a co-founder of the Washington Area Women’s Foundation and has served on numerous boards, both locally and nationally. Currently Weinstein is providing organizational and philanthropic consulting and guidance on corporate social responsibility.