True Equity Requires Rejecting the Status Quo

By Dr. Keren R. McGinity

eJP’s piece “Jewish Funders Speak Out on Michael Steinhardt” (March 22) inspires me to share some experiences that reflect a lack of respect and equity. I hope that they will help us all think through how power dynamics influence discrepancies between the way people have been hired, and the way we should be.

A few months ago, I was asked to serve as an advisor on a Jewish community study assessing the needs of interfaith couples and families. The work was right up my professional alley. I was offered a flat honorarium of $500, as were all advisors regardless of gender (I was told). The time commitment would require a number of hours over multiple months totaling perhaps two days and lending my name to the final report. As an underemployed academic it was tempting to accept; $500 is a lot of groceries. However, my time and expertise are worth more. Participating in someone else’s research project would also take time away from my own research, writing, teaching and community service.

Given their needs, I suggested it would make more sense to pay me an hourly rate, which would have roughly doubled the honorarium. The initial response was: “Unfortunately, it sounds like given the financial parameters, this project is not a good match for you.” The claim that there were not sufficient resources to pay me hourly rang false. Contracts for Jewish community studies can range from $10,000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The wish that they had asked me before submitting the proposal meant there was no forethought about my needs. What added insult to injury was that the research center director mansplained how he often donates his time by being an advisor or reviewer because it’s his way of “giving back.” Apparently it did not occur to him that I likewise review manuscripts, advise, and give talks without being paid because I, too, give back.

This was not the first time that I’ve been asked to do something for little or no money. Some years ago, the executive director of a now-defunct Jewish outreach organization asked if I would compile a bibliography of Jewish intermarriage resources for his funder. When I asked how much it was worth to his funder, he responded with irritation: “Never mind, I’ll do it myself!” I have always wondered why he thought I should I do his work for him without getting paid? Would he have asked a man to do that?

Not infrequently I am invited to speak, sometimes in a city or state other than mine, without any mention of payment. I find myself in the uncomfortable position of having to ask. A male mentor once told me that I should speak as many places as I can even without being paid just for the exposure. My mother taught me that, “A person can die from too much exposure.” A female mentor advised that I should never accept less than I am worth because it makes getting paid equitably harder for every woman after me. We need to integrate financial clarity with self-care so that no one spreads her, his, or themself too thin.

I was once offered a six-week position at a Jewish high school teaching AP U.S. history while the fulltime faculty member had paternity leave. The offer was made without any information about compensation. I only found out when I inquired. While I declined the offer for non-monetary reasons, I was surprised that such a high caliber educational institution would invite someone to join its faculty, even if only briefly, without first sharing salary details. I have come to realize that this experience represents an unfortunate trend of expecting women to accept work because we are grateful for the opportunity.

A famous author wrote about her struggles coming to terms with the actions of her “long-term acquaintance” Steven M. Cohen and his resignation from his place of employment. She opined: “I don’t want him or his family to starve” (Moment magazine November-December, 2018). There was no concern evinced for how Cohen’s sexual misconduct and abuse of power influenced women’s incomes or whether they were starving.

I recently asked two senior colleagues why it was that despite having all the academic credentials and years on campus I had no secure position, while the retired Jewish male federation leader – without significant university teaching or scholarship – was appointed to a faculty position at our esteemed university committed to social justice? The answer: rich friends.

Although some men are likewise asked to do pro bono work or offered minimal compensation, men’s work remains more highly valued than women’s work in the Jewish community as it does in the larger American society. The concept of the male breadwinner as provider still permeates our organizations, institutions and mindsets when, in reality, there are many women who are the heads of their households. Men may be hired for positions in the Jewish community rather than equally qualified women because they “have to support their families.” The response “we’ve always done it this way” is as passé as “boys will be boys.” We can, and must, do better.

As we strive to pinpoint how to shift culture in ways that will create and sustain safe, respectful and equitable workplaces and communal spaces, we should also insist on transparency. I have been struggling to figure out what I can do when invited to spend time away from my desk and family. I can ask what their last male speaker was paid and request to be compensated the same, however it will be difficult to ascertain whether this actually achieves gender equity or simply makes people uncomfortable.

Volunteerism is a Jewish value that I love and uphold. However when people assume that I have a tenured position and full-time salary, so I should be able to afford to do whatever they are asking, it demeans this sacred work. Not only is it presumptuous, it also insinuates that I have no choice in the matter. It is a privilege to be in a position to “give back” and I certainly do my portion. However, given the discrepancy in power and equity that fueled many #MeToo experiences, we must recognize that the only way to change the status quo is to reject it.

Dr. Keren R. McGinity is the director of the Interfaith Families Jewish Engagement graduate program at Hebrew College, a part-time position without benefits, and an honorary research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. She is a single working parent.