Recognizing and Addressing a Gender Gap in Teen Leadership

by Samantha Hea

As a young Jew living in Colorado, I have grown up in a vibrant community of peers and mentors who have influenced me greatly. As a young Jewish woman, I have grown up with strong role models in all aspects of my Jewish life and have been inspired by their passion and love of Judaism. As a young woman defining my Jewish identity and Jewish community, I now realize that an important element has been missing in some of my Jewish experiences: women in top leadership positions.

The discrepancy is apparent in many Jewish nonprofit organizations. Research shows that the majority of professionals in these organizations are women; yet a vast majority of top leaders in these same organizations are men.

I first became acquainted with this issue as a junior in high school, although I didn’t realize it at the time. As a proud new member of Rose Youth Foundation (RYF), I entered the Rose Community Foundation Board Room excitedly, nervously and a little naively.

Rose Youth Foundation is an initiative of Rose Community Foundation and for the past 11 years, it has empowered Jewish teens to change the Denver/Boulder community through strategic grantmaking. By the time I became a participant in 2009, a startling trend had emerged: bright, capable young women were running in elections for various leadership positions, and losing.

As a member, I served on RYF for two years. I ran for leadership positions each year, and lost both elections. At the time, I didn’t consider the role of gender at all, and I didn’t give it any thought once the elections were over. However, I was not alone. Only three women served as chair or vice-chair in the first ten years of RYF and none had been chair, the highest leadership position, in six years.

As an intern, I worked with staff at Rose Community Foundation to begin the process of identifying causes and brainstorming solutions. We contacted Shifra Bronznick, a consultant and expert on Jewish women in leadership at Advancing Women Professionals, who suggested that we begin by evaluating the member selection process to identify potential barriers for female candidates.

Rose Youth Foundation is diverse and the selection process is very deliberate. Every year, the group consists of an equal number of males and females, includes a broad spectrum of Jewish identification and observance levels, and draws members from each of the seven counties of the Denver metro area. However, RYF has a history of generating one and a half to two times as many female as male applicants.

In order to maintain gender balance while making room for more female applicants, the selection committee had brought back an overrepresentation of male returning members, year after year. Because the majority of chair and vice-chair candidates were returning members, the selection committee was unknowingly stacking the deck for males to fill the election slates.

The mental model of leadership, then, became predominantly male. The returning members each year would have a picture of what the chair should look like, and when it came time for elections this preconception would influence the choice.

To help find a solution, I convened an informal focus group of seven recent RYF alumni to discuss the role of gender in RYF leadership. With both women and men around the table, the alumni shared their thoughts and experiences. They identified that participation was not imbalanced at RYF meetings; women have strong voices throughout the process and play active roles in group decisions.

They also discussed the differences in how each gender presents during the first few meetings, prior to elections. They realized that the election results reflected how well the candidates schmoozed in the first few meetings, and generally speaking, the more outgoing and outspoken candidates in RYF’s history had tended to be male.

With this in mind, they brainstormed various solutions. First, they recognized that we had to correct the gender imbalance among returning members and recommended that going forward, an equal number of male and female RYF members would have the opportunity to participate for a second year.

The alumni proposed two other changes: two co-chairs, instead of one chair and one vice-chair, and elections at the end of the year, instead of at the beginning of each cycle. Two co-chairs would eliminate the focus on finding the one person everyone understood would assume the chair role would hopefully open the field to more candidates who would now be running for one of two positions. Elections at the end of the year would ensure that members would know the strengths and styles of the candidates, eliminating the need to “campaign” during the first two meetings.

One of our biggest debates was whether or not to require that one chair be male and one female. We eventually decided that electing a woman for the sake of electing a woman was counterproductive. We wanted all candidates to have a level playing field in an election process that would lead to the best candidates winning – regardless of their gender. It was a difficult decision because we realized there was no guarantee we would achieve the outcomes we were hoping for.

The incoming members of Rose Youth Foundation agreed to implement the changes we recommended. Since those changes, a male and female have been elected as co-chairs for two years running. The trial period has been successful so far but the full effect of these changes will have to be assessed for years to come. I am confident that the alumni focus group laid a strong framework for future years and I hope that elections will continue to produce the best candidates, with equal opportunities for each gender.

Looking back, I realize now that I had begun to take some of my opportunities for granted. Because I was not confronted with overt discrimination, I had discounted the role that gender dynamics still inevitably play. And after this process, I feel more empowered to be part of the solution. The lack of women in leadership roles was not a conscious decision made year after year, but it is a good reminder that opportunities are not always equal.

After working with several amazing female mentors and role models at Rose Community Foundation and seeing my female peers serve in leadership roles, I realize how much I have gained from those two lost elections, and as I define the role I hope to play in both my Jewish and wider community, I feel empowered to continue to be part of the change.

Samantha Hea is a sophomore at Rice University, majoring in Political Science and Policy Studies. She served on Rose Youth Foundation from 2009 to 2011 and as an intern at Rose Community Foundation from 2010 to 2012.