The Gender Disconnect

The Jewish communal world has a problem. Well, several, but today let’s focus on one: the continuing gender gap in North American Jewish organizations.

A recently released study, titled Jewish Communal Professionals in North American: A Profile, provides an unprecedented look of over 2000 Jewish communal professionals throughout the United States and Canada. Commissioned by The Jewish Communal Service Association and conducted by the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University’s Wagner Graduate School, the study provides the first in-depth look, across the organizational divide, at who is working in U.S. Jewish communal institutions, their education, responsibilities, training, compensation and more.

The results are disturbing – especially regarding the continuing gender pay and leadership inequalities that exists across the communal landscape.

Women make up around two-thirds of all Jewish communal professionals, yet represent only 12 percent of leadership. They significantly lag behind men in compensation, with an overall gap of $28,000! Adjusting for age, years in the field, level of responsibility, hours worked, and degrees earned, women’s salaries still trail men’s by about $20,000.


Is it because many opt to work for smaller organizations that happen to have smaller budgets? Is it because women are not as strong at the negotiating table? Or men are stronger in marketing themselves? Or is it, plain and simple, gender discrimination – are women just not provided the same opportunities?

Jerry Silverman, the president and CEO of Jewish Federations of North America has said, “I don’t know that we’ve put enough emphasis on grooming women, building their capabilities, expertise, leadership.” That’s probably true, and the federation system certainly has not been setting any examples in this regard. It’s only recently, in San Francisco, that a woman has been selected CEO of a big city federation.

Writing this time last year in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Shifra Bronznick and Didi Goldenhar (professionals at Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community) said,

“If women – the majority of the work force – are not being cultivated for chief-executive posts, nonprofit groups are not making the best use of the dollars and professional development that they have already invested in their staffs. The persistence of the gender gap also signals a complacency that is at odds with the values and can-do spirit of these mission-driven organizations.”

And where is the seat of this problem? With the communal leadership.

Communal leadership is, correctly, entrusted with the responsibility of managing its respective organizations. Communal leadership sets not only the agenda, but more importantly, the tone. And the lagging influence by women in many organizations does the community a disservice.

Why is all this so important?

Besides just plain fairness, all the organizations – from the smallest start-up to the largest federations – need to harness the very best talent that’s out there. They need to not only attract, but also retain, the creme of the crop to drive their agendas forward. Seasoned talent is needed to fill the thousands of expected vacancies as baby boomers begin to retire.

The gender disconnect is also a mindset. How can it not accurately reflect the community’s make-up? Women play such a powerful role in Jewish life. They disproportionately choose employment in Jewish organizations only to find themselves languishing in junior positions – choked off from the air of advancement. Too many organizations are still run like “old boys clubs.” And, until this mind-set is changed, the problem will continue to fester. First, it is necessary to admit that there is a problem and then to speak about it publicly and often.

The Forward newspaper has been one of the very few voices speaking on this issue; other Jewish media need to join them. The depth of the problem needs to be dealt with and also the failure to really move forward during the past few years.

It is necessary to speak out when panels, or contest winners, are not gender balanced. If this doesn’t happen, there will be little or no incentive to act differently in the future.

Unlike many other challenges the community faces today, this one can be rectified with some good planning and fairer advancement and compensation policies. All have a responsibility to do their part in not just breaking the glass ceiling, but helping to level the playing field.

As several Hillel students declared, at the recent New Orleans General Assembly of the Federation system, the Jewish world is still an exciting place to work. Everyone should pitch in and address this most important issue.

Like so much else, events have moved beyond conversation. Results are all that count going forward.

This article appears in The Jerusalem Report, December 6, 2010 issue.
image: Avi Katz (The Jerusalem Report)

Be sure to also read Jewish Community: Zero?, an article on the lack of women finalists in the Jewish Community Heroes contest.