Now is Not the Time for Respect!

What does it say that after decades of struggles to engage and hire woman at the very top that when the three largest CEO positions are open in the same community, none were able to find a woman just as qualified or capable?

glass ceilingBy Lou Feldstein

The story is told of Isidor I. Rabi, the Nobel laureate in physics, whose mother would ask him after school, “Did you ask good questions?”

Inspired by this story, every morning as I dropped my daughter off for middle school, I would say to her, “Ask good questions.” I would then add, “And challenge authority.” As the father of one daughter in a family with three brothers, I recognized that if our home were a microcosm of the larger world, then for her to prosper she would need to be a strong woman. To truly succeed in life, she had to not only ask good questions, but also challenge the status quo. Only then would she be prepared to overcome the countless obstacles that life throws at every woman.

As she prepared to enter the 8th grade, I was called in to meet with the middle school principal. A tough woman in her late sixties or early seventies, Ms. Principal was not one to trifle with. She shared that while my daughter did in fact ask good questions, she also regularly challenged authority. As feelings of pride welled up inside of me, the principal then sternly told me that my daughter’s behavior was not acceptable.

After a bit of discussion, she instructed me that if I persisted in sharing the same instructions each morning, I would be well advised to also add “respectfully” to the end of the statement. Hmmmm. I wonder if she ever conveyed the same message to the boys in the grade. The message was clear – they wanted polite and acquiescing girls.

I thought about this experience when I heard that the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta had hired a new CEO. I happen to know the person and he is truly a talented, skilled, remarkable and amazing individual. I do not question his qualifications and believe that in so many ways, he is exactly what a community like Atlanta needs. His hiring (not him personally), however, when seen in the context of recent events, does raise an interesting challenge for the Jewish community.

In the same general period that Advancing Woman Professionals and the Jewish Community closed its doors (end of 2015), Atlanta’s three largest Jewish agencies (Federation, JCC and JF&CS) all hired men as their CEOs (two as internal promotions). If Atlanta reflects Jewish life in North America, what does it say that after decades of struggles to engage and hire woman at the very top that when the three largest CEO positions are open in the same community, none were able to find a woman just as qualified or capable?

Perhaps the days of challenging authority respectfully needs to end. Look where respect has gotten us. In 2014 Jennifer Lawrence, the lead actress from the movie “Hunger Games,” learned from publicly released emails that her salary was far below that of her male colleagues. Rather than being angry with Sony, she was frustrated by her own actions:

“When the Sony hack happened and I found out how much less I was being paid than the lucky people with d$^s, I didn’t get mad at Sony. I got mad at myself,” “I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early…”

I didn’t want to seem ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled.’ At the time, that seemed like a fine idea, until I saw the payroll on the Internet and realized every man I was working with definitely didn’t worry about being ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled.’ “This is an element of my personality that I’ve been working against for years, and based on the statistics, I don’t think I’m the only woman with this issue.”

During a coaching session with one of the rabbis with whom I work, we were discussing her contract negotiations. As we discussed her desired terms, I asked why she was not asking for more considering her skills, talents and the respect the organization had for her. I was surprised (although I should not have been) by her response. While she knew her male colleagues had no such hesitation in negotiations, she was concerned that the leadership would look at her negatively, and might not like her as much if she pressed too hard.

Sheryl Sandberg said it best in her 2010 Ted Talk:

“women systematically underestimate their own abilities…Women do not negotiate for themselves in the workforce… And most importantly, men attribute their success to themselves, and women attribute it to other external factors… Why does this matter? …Because no one gets to the corner office by sitting on the side … and no one gets the promotion if they don’t think they deserve their success, or they don’t even understand their own success.”

Many of the women I coach have shared similar sentiments. My male clients have never hesitated to request (read, “demand”) more. I thank them for opening my eyes even wider.

In early March, five female communal professionals wrote an op-ed to the local Jewish press advocating that Atlanta’s Jewish organizations provide paid parental leave. I am not sure asking the community to advocate may have been strong enough. Imagine the reaction if they instead channeled their inner Clara Lemlich (the 19 yr old leader of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory strike) and called for every woman and male peer to not show up at work, or asked donors to withhold contributions, until such policies were instituted. While such actions would not be considered “respectful,” I sense that paid parental leave would quickly become established policy.

Challenging authority with respect may truly reflect the internal insecurities of the oppressed. It is understandable. Disruptive change, the very kind of change that is required to change Jewish organizations will and can only occur when the cost of maintaining the status quo is so high, that true equality is the only option. Regrettably, as history has taught us, this does not happen through “requests,” “polite advocacy” and “respect.”

Granted it is easy (and yes, presumptuous) for me as a 50+ year old male to tell women what to do, considering that the seeds of the disparity are so embedded in our society. Sandberg, points out the challenge: “I wish I could go tell all the young women I work for…, “Believe in yourself and negotiate for yourself. Own your own success.”… But it’s not that simple. Because what the data shows, above all else, is one thing, which is that success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.”

As such, empowering women to stop worrying about doing things “politely” only solves part of the problem. More importantly, it is time for me, and my fellow men to challenge our own internal sub-conscious biases. We must also aggressively work to encourage and partner with those women who are willing to rock the proverbial boat.

Experience teaches that success only comes when women take ownership and make demands. That is when people like the male chairs of search and negotiation committees finally open their eyes and see what is required. My own perspective has changed over the years as I have worked with incredibly smart, driven women who challenged the status quo (and not always so respectfully). It is not easy. It, is however, now the time for women, but even more so men, to do all that is necessary to create actual level playing fields. Clearly as each of Atlanta’s recent hires demonstrate, the struggle for actual equality is far from over – and it not just a woman’s struggle.

In just a few months, my daughter will be a college freshman. It will be a time for great exploration. Fortunately, she rejected the middle school principal’s message, and found role models who embrace breaking down walls. In High School, she found teachers who truly believed in helping minds expand and not accept conformity. She discovered strong women who live their lives not by accepting societal expectations, but rather by demanding new realities.

It is my hope that she and her peers (female and male) will finish the work that prior generations started. Only then will the next generation of CEO’s in Atlanta and cities across North America be women. Isn’t this what any Jewish father would want for his daughter?

Lou Feldstein is the CEO of Dynamic Change Solutions a consulting firm focusing on nonprofits and faith based organizations. He spent thirty plus years in senior level positions and as a rabbi in the Jewish communal system, where he was bless and inspired to learn at the feet of many incredible female mentors. He can be reached at: lou@dynamicchangesolutions.com