The Truth No One Wants to Hear

Local Jewish Agency Accused of Gender Bias Eliminates Seven Female Employees

By An Anonymous Communal Professional

Currently, a spreadsheet is circulating throughout the Jewish community. The shared Google spreadsheet has more than 500 responses to questions about salaries and benefits from every size and type of organization in North America and beyond. The goal is to provide employees the tools to ensure and advocate for gender parity in Jewish agencies.

Such a grassroots effort is needed because gender equality remains elusive for Jewish communal organizations. Senior leaders – men as well as women – are more vocal about a commitment to parity, but are their intentions translating into action?

There is at least one Jewish agency where the answer to that question would be a definite “no.” This organization, which will not be named, espouses familiar, core, liberal values. Their website promotes living Jewishly, inclusivity, development, and safe spaces. It’s seen as a community gem and the darling of its Jewish Federation.

However, behind the scenes, it’s much less idyllic.

Early in 2019, declining income and a significant increase in spending caused a notable financial deficit to be revealed. As a result, the female CFO was fired by the male CEO.

The CEO works closely with the board President (male) and its Officers (80% male). Of course, the CEO had every right to fire the CFO. However, there is a natural question – was the CEO held accountable by the Board for his role in the deficit? He was responsible for much of the overspending, often times demanding that the CFO “make it work.” Still, all parties involved appeared content to blame the female and the female only.

Later in the year, a group of employees anonymously reported to the same group of Officers that there were serious culture issues at the agency. Specifically, they acknowledged feeling like there was a great deal of gender bias, pay disparity between men and women, nepotism, and lack of accountability from the leadership.

While this information shocked the Officers, employees felt good knowing that finally, the curtain had been pulled back and something would have to be done. After all, the agency is centered around the idea of community and building safe spaces.

In response to the feedback, the President asked a fellow lay leader, who had worked closely with agency staff in the past, if she would talk to employees to understand the true breadth and depth of the issues. Over the course of the summer, she talked to ten employees who confirmed the initial complaints. However, when the time came to report her findings back to the President, he was unresponsive.

As the summer continued, so did business as usual. The CEO continued to create a hostile work environment, he yelled at some women, while ignoring others. And still, no action.

The only real change that occurred was when the Officers made it clear to the staff that, per the bylaws, their responsibility was to manage the CEO; and the CEO managed the staff. In essence, no Officer should partake in a conversation with a staff member about work-environment issues. The Officers never followed-up with the lay leader who had questioned employees, nor did they bother to hear their perspectives for themselves. In fact, these men held up their hands and said, “we are not responsible for employees.”

While there are lanes established to avoid over involvement of lay leaders, the entire purpose of a board is to oversee the management of the organization to ensure that the professional leadership upholds its fiduciary commitments, as well as its values. Surely, women confiding that they felt mistreated – specifically by the CEO – should usurp any bylaws that prohibit board members from talking to staff. Especially when, in this instance, the agency lacked a Human Resources manager.

However, these men looked the other way. When the Board President was questioned directly, his responses included statements like, “why would we punish him for one bad year?” and “it was only a select few that felt this way.” The blatant unwillingness to see the female perspective was both reckless and irresponsible yet, accepted by all the men involved.

At the end of the summer, the CEO proceeded to lay off nine people. Of the nine, seven were women – four of whom were in leadership positions. The four women were accomplished, successful, and strong. During their time at the agency, they were often individually lauded by board and community members for a job well done.

With all the layoffs, the agency could easily bounce back and save over half a million dollars in salaries. Perhaps this is why no one bothered to question the salaries of the CEO, a Senior Director and his wife (protected from the staff reductions), who are compensated very generously, above and beyond industry standards for their roles.

Three months after the layoffs, the CFO’s position was officially filled by a male. Additionally, the organization has since hired two more men, consultants, for nearly $100,000.

Countless board members, donors and Federation employees have consoled and supported the women privately. Publicly, however, very little has changed. When leadership is questioned, half-truths are accepted without challenge.

This is a story that is all too common.

The latest Women in the Workplace report by McKinsey and LeanIn.Org shows that while there are more women in the C-Suite, microaggressions, gender barriers and implicit biases have seen little change in the past decade. Many argue that until these are dealt with – and attitudes shift – there will never be complete parity.

In this situation, we saw a chiefdom of men who protected their own. They beat their chests and the women who refused to accept the chest beating were effectively forced out. The men’s biases clouded them from realizing that the path they chose is antiquated and, ultimately, will result in a weaker organization. They lost the skills of these women and the diverse range of opinions that worked passionately to improve the agency.

The truth, which all the men involved refused to realize, represents another path. This is the path that would welcome diversity in gender, opinion, and leadership. This is the path that will ultimately lead to change. Until then, women will continue to consult spreadsheets and recount their experiences online and in person, with each other and to whomever else will listen.

This story has been a difficult one to tell, as many people have shied away from it, saying it’s “too political” or “too controversial” and even deemed as “girl drama” by some.

The truth is not always easy. Nevertheless, nothing will change if, like in this situation, everything is kept quiet. The more that these stories are revealed, the more we can learn, and the less acceptable they become. And it’s with the truth that gender equality – albeit still far away – becomes closer and closer.