Pursuing Gender Equality: A Few Concrete Steps

by Adam Gaynor

I have been experiencing some cognitive dissonance lately.

In the same year that the Jewish press has re-exposed gross inequalities in favor of men in the Jewish professional sector, there has been a growing movement by Jewish educators to attract and retain teen boys, whom many fear are dropping out of Jewish education at a higher rate than girls. In short, despite the fact that men dominate communal decision making, we are afraid that boys are disaffected!


The preponderance of male leaders (and their higher salaries) in the professional sector and the under-representation of male teens in Jewish education are actually two sides of the same coin: the Jewish community’s inability to accurately analyze the relationship between gender and power.

We tend to focus on trying to fix the mechanics of problems: in the examples above, this usually means recruiting and retaining boys more effectively to teen programs, and creating leadership pipelines for female professionals. Instead of focusing on the narrow mechanics of these difficult challenges, we need to see context – the roots and pervasiveness of problems – as well as their immediate manifestations.

In Jewish teen education – the field that is so consumed with engaging boys – educators would benefit from quality research conducted in the larger society. As far back as 1982, feminist developmental psychologist Carol Gilligan demonstrated that widely accepted theories about human development emerged through research with only half of the population: boys. A decade later, another feminist developmental psychologist, Niobe Way, went a step further by demonstrating that even when both boys and girls are included in developmental research, neither falls neatly into categories of distinct, gendered behavior.

But in Jewish teen education, our image of boys feels stuck somewhere in the 1950s. A recent Hadassah Magazine article described the Moving Traditions’ Brotherhood program, which attempts to keep boys engaged through boys-only activities. The program is exclusively staffed by Jewish men and focuses on sports as a core principle of engagement, a gender-stereotypical model that is woefully passé. The assumption that boys are more focused on sports than girls is belied by the explosive growth of high school, college, and professional athletic teams for girls. Such an assumption also excludes boys who are less interested in sports, and reinforces for them the idea that masculinity is tied to physical prowess.

In part, this boy-crisis hysteria rests on fears about the feminization of particular areas of Jewish life. As one Moving Traditions staffer confirms: “Unless we start engaging the next generation… Judaism for men will be called Orthodoxy and for women will be called liberal Judaism.” A congregational Rabbi, whose synagogue sponsors a Brotherhood group, adds that the problem with Jewish teen programs is that they “ask a lot of questions about how you feel about this or that. Boys are not much into that.” How can boys (and girls) be expected to resist the dominant pressures of sexist gender roles when such roles are being reinforced by our communal educators?

In contrast, when I ran Jewish teen programs through The Curriculum Initiative (TCI) at non-Jewish high schools, the gender balance was eerily equal. Through my discussions with TCI educators, I surmise that this outcome was related to two issues:

  1. We didn’t assume anything about our students’ interests; rather, we developed programs in partnership with students, based upon their interests, and actively encouraged all participants to safely explore the world outside of their comfort zones.
  2. Faculty at our partner schools (secular and Christian) were often trained in – or at least exposed to – feminist and multicultural theory, affording them greater awareness of gender discrimination and stereotypes. TCI’s educators, who operated as guests within such schools, were similarly trained and sensitized to these issues. In fact, TCI consciously hired educators exposed to multicultural and feminist pedagogy; to do otherwise would have been negligent.

Outside of a handful of examples, Jewish education is a field that has not yet integrated multicultural and feminist theory and practice. When field-wide, Jewish educators generally lack the training to understand the role of gender in every level of our work – from administration, to teaching, to human development – and are simply counting the ratio of boys and girls, I would safely bet that gendered stereotypes are being imposed upon students, who ultimately vote with their feet. If we are being honest when it comes to teens, few boys or girls are participating in any meaningful numbers.

In both Jewish education and the broader world of Jewish communal life, we need the tools to understand how gender operates in our programs, institutions, research, and fields of practice. It is then that we can make the systemic changes that are required to sustain our communal institutions and initiatives, and keep people engaged.

I suspect that young, female Jewish professionals also vote with their feet when they bump up against the glass ceiling. Given the impending mass exodus of baby boomers from Jewish leadership positions, a parallel departure of skilled women (who hold the vast majority of junior and mid-level positions) will leave our community with a frightening dearth of leadership.

To change this dynamic, we need to learn to see the world through gendered goggles, and to train the thousands of professionals, lay leaders, and educators in our community to do the same. Part of this process must include a commitment to conduct “gender audits” of programs, research agendas, organizations, and fields of practice. A gender audit is an evaluation methodology designed to assess the degree to which an organization’s policies and practices promote gender equality.

The tools for change already exist. In Jewish education, Ma’yan leads superb trainings on gender and other critical issues through its “Evaded Issues” curriculum, originally developed by Dr. Shira Epstein and Naomi Less. Advancing Women Professionals provides both field-wide research and targeted consulting to fundamentally dismantle gender discrimination in our institutions. Funders would be strategic to grow these initiatives into well-staffed, national projects.

One more solution might come from philanthropy. If professional leaders will not prioritize gender equality, perhaps some bold funders can demand change. Funders should include in their legally-binding grant agreements the stipulation that within the grant period, the grantee engage a gender auditor.

The various gender gaps in Jewish life, whether in our offices, boardrooms, or classrooms, are eminently solvable. The expertise and resources to confront these challenges exist. Ultimately, leaders must be transparent enough to acknowledge, without defensiveness, that these challenges are pervasive and are unacceptable, and that it is time to be bold in the face of an unethical and communally disastrous status quo.

Adam Gaynor is a consultant at The Whelan Group and a doctoral student in Education and Jewish Studies at NYU. He was formerly Executive Director of TCI.