inflection point

On International Women’s Day, Let’s Advance Safety, Respect, and Equity in the Workplace

When I became the first executive director of the Safety, Respect, Equity (SRE) Network in late 2019, I could not have imagined the cascade of losses one year would bring: storms of racial violence, blazing wildfires, an economic downturn and, of course, a global pandemic that has claimed more than 2 million lives worldwide. As is the case with every social upheaval, it is those who lack power in our society — women, people of color, and the poor — who have suffered the most.

This International Women’s Day — exactly three years since the founding of the SRE Network — I’m feeling especially grateful for the grit and resilience of working women of every race and class, and in every industry. Whether operating on patients in emergency rooms or packing groceries in supermarkets, whether caring for babies or leading meetings on Zoom, women are physically and emotionally exhausted. And women on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19, particularly women of color, face enormous risks to their health and safety.

The big picture is sobering: Nearly 80 percent of healthcare workers and 83 percent of workers who provide social assistance, including childcare and emergency services, identify as women. And women-dominated occupations, such as nurses, flight attendants, and personal care aides, are among the most vulnerable to getting sick and spreading the virus to others.

In addition to bearing the brunt of illness, women — especially Black and Latinx women — have been hit hardest by the economic recession. Even when the economy is thriving, women comprise nearly 60 percent of low-wage jobs that pay less than $11 per day. And in a struggling economy, many women are increasingly afraid to speak out against workplace harassment and inequity for fear of losing a steady paycheck. Moreover, large swaths of women of every racial and ethnic background lost paid work entirely in 2020 due to the demands of caring for children, sick family members, or elderly parents.

We are at a key inflection point in our work to build a new world — a better world — that honors the dignity of everyone in the workforce. As a national Jewish network of more than 140 organizations committed to creating safe, respectful, and equitable Jewish workplaces and communities in North America, SRE Network has a bold mandate. Together, we are examining our current reality and encouraging leaders in the Jewish community to take the following actions, particularly as the pandemic continues:

1) Center the voices of diverse Jewish women in decisionmaking and in workplace culture.

Women make up 70% of the Jewish communal workforce but occupy only 30% of executive positions. A forthcoming research report by Leading Edge about closing the gender gap in top leadership of Jewish organizations finds that one of the key factors perpetuating this gap is a persistent misconception that you cannot be both a top leader and a primary caregiver. This misconception, along with other biases and structural inequities, often results in women’s voices being muted or minimized when it comes to making key decisions, shaping workplace culture, and achieving results. Additionally, while working from home remains a key challenge for Jewish professionals of all genders during the pandemic, the experience of working from home is especially difficult for women. A research project of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies found that female-identified Jews working in Jewish organizations were about three times as likely to say that working from home was “impossible” compared to men.

We have an opportunity to pause and ask ourselves, “Who in my organization is most constrained by the demands of the pandemic? Women? Women of Color? Have I taken enough time to acknowledge all that they are juggling, express gratitude for their work, check-in, or to just listen?”

2) Reinforce and implement non-discrimination and antiharassment policies.

Historically, traumatic events and ongoing crises correlate with an increase in sexual violence, harassment, and abuse. Now, more than ever before, leaders of Jewish organizations and communities must proactively assert that they will not tolerate harassment and discrimination on the basis of gender. This includes harassment expressed through texts, phone calls, emails, social media, or videos. In order for everyone to thrive at work, we need to know that co-workers, managers, donors, and volunteers are being held to standards that champion safety, respect, and equity.

3) Respond with urgency to complaints of harassment and gender discrimination.

Within the tumult of pandemic-related demands, it can be easy to dismiss concerns of harassment and discrimination, especially when physical office spaces remain mostly closed. But multiple reports indicate that cyberbullying and online harassment have skyrocketed since the start of the COVID crisis. Violent threats, digital surveillance, and the sharing of sexually explicit images without consent are among the many ways perpetrators express gender-based harassment online. Jewish leaders must be poised to respond to these violations — seriously, respectfully, and promptly. Additionally, they must communicate clear guidelines for reporting, tracking behaviors, and identifying a process for corrective action.

4) Engage in rigorous learning and education about gender, equity, and inclusion.

As Jewish organizations continue to reimagine work during the pandemic, leaders must not abandon their commitments to learning how sexism, discrimination, and bias manifest in the workplace. Before the COVID crisis began, some Jewish leaders began to relate to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as a ‘must have’ not a ‘nice to have’ pillar in their work. Jewish workplaces must continue to dedicate time, energy, resources, and staff to educate employees across all levels of their organizations about gender discrimination and sexual harassment. They should also pursue training sessions on unconscious or implicit bias and bystander intervention related to multiple aspects of identity including race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, gender diversity, and ability that all impact Jewish experiences in the workplace.

This work is not easy. It cannot be done in a day or even a year. But we all need to begin somewhere and do our part to build a world in which everyone is valued. This International Women’s Day, I call upon every Jewish community leader to pledge to take meaningful action to advance equity and dignity for all. One year from now, when the pandemic is hopefully behind us, we will still have a long journey ahead, but I hope we will be able to celebrate our achievements and continue to build a stronger future in which everyone can thrive.

Elana Wien is the Executive Director of the Safety, Respect, Equity Network.