By Shifra Bronznick, Barbara Dobkin and Rabbi Joanna Samuels
Each day, it seems, brings new stories that prove that our workplaces are sites of violence against women, the silencing of women’s ambition, and discrimination in women’s compensation. For some of us, this is new information. For many of us, it rings true, but the extent of the problem and the graphic ugliness of the revelations are shocking. And for others of us, those who are its victims and the confidants of its victims, these stories are what we already know. There is no shock at watching powerful men be revealed to be those same men who assault, grope, belittle, underpay, and undervalue women because we already knew this. And we know that the Jewish community is not immune to these challenges.
But what is potentially transformational about this moment is that for once the problem to be fixed is not women, but rather an overall social system that is anchored in male privilege and male violence (yes, also in our Jewish community). Women are no longer staring into the funhouse mirror of misogyny, whereby a woman can be held culpable – simultaneously – for being too pretty, not pretty enough, too modest, not modest enough, too confident, not confident enough, too powerful, not powerful enough, too sexually available, not sexually available enough.
This is a system enabled by men and women who have made a devil’s bargain with a status quo that holds back our communities and our society, and tells women that the price of leadership and even participation is to be dehumanized, silenced and underpaid. This is a system where men are applauded for being authoritative and powerful, and – in some cases – accepted even when they are abusive and undermining. This is a system where women’s role is to be agreeable, cooperative, invisible, and most of all, nice.
As long time strategists for women’s advancement, both in the secular world and in Jewish communities, and as the former leaders of Advancing Women Professionals & the Jewish Community, we have witnessed the depth of the problem. We applaud the women who continue to bravely come forward, and we applaud the champions who are sharing their stories. We know in our community that this is the tip of the iceberg. In fact, much of what takes place in Jewish communities has been obscured by the pretense that we are one big happy family, and the rule that we don’t wash our dirty laundry in public. And, it has been further enabled by a system that relies on big gifts from donors and gives volunteer leaders a disproportionate influence over the selection of top professional leadership, while doing little to dismantle their biases or create processes that ensure a level playing field. As a result, it is little wonder that so few of major Jewish legacy organizations have appointed women CEOs and when they do, as in the case of one large Jewish agency, the top executive was compensated by $75,000 less than her male predecessor and $150,000 less than her male successor.
These profound problems inspired us to create Advancing Women Professionals to intervene in the system, both Jewish and secular, as a catalyst for deep change. At the heart of this strategy was our refusal to fix the so-called “leadership deficit” of women, but instead to focus on changing the systems that prevent shared leadership in our community. To do that we had to enlist partners and allies to co-create and co-own the work with us, and ultimately to take the work on by integrating it deeply into their own organizations. Rather than allowing our colleagues to outsource their concern, shame and hard work to us, we asked them to step into their leadership, a strategy we called the Exist strategy. We brought AWP to an end as a stand-alone organization because we believed the real power and change would come when people and organizations who were directly affected would take on the work.
We learned from the work we did and the transformations we made. We hope these lessons will illuminate the path forward and help newly motivated allies to learn from decades-long efforts to build gender equity in our community.
First: make these issues discussed and discussable. It is essential that those in power focus on listening to the people at every level of the system who are most directly affected. How should organizations create sturdy and safe structures in which the gendered nature of power and work can be revealed and problems can be taken up in a responsible way?
It turns out that having sympathetic leaders is insufficient. All of us – the nicest and most sympathetic CEOs, board chairs, and funders among us – exist in complex systems where we are accountable to values other than justice: power, reputation, staff retention, job security, being “one of the guys” or being “a good girl.” The messy contexts in which we operate make us poor judges of what is presented to us and they may make us complicit in the minimizing, explaining away, and the “two sides to every story” gaslighting that enables sexism to thrive. The best HR policy is ineffective if some people, whether by their positional authority or unofficial power, are exempted from it. This is especially true if people who bring complaints are punished. Every organization needs durable policies that involve trusted outside mentors and leaders who can bring a dispassionate and equitable approach to allegations of misconduct.
Second: People in top positions – CEOs, board members, donors, and foundations – have a special responsibility to conduct a forensic audit of the ways their blind spots have contributed to the inequity in our community. All effective movements for social change teach us that we cannot espouse external solutions without doing the internal work that reveals our own biases, limitations, complacency in the face of inequity. In short, none of us can seek to heal a broken system without realizing our role in sustaining it. Before leaders in any arena seek to “fix” this problem, we need to understand our role in creating it.
Third: The most effective leaders will cultivate a spirit of true curiosity and experimentation and will support people at every level of the system in exploring how to make a difference. One of our core values at AWP was that people can make change wherever they are sitting within the hierarchy of an organizational or communal structure. Sometimes, people were skeptical. But many people took up the challenge and worked from within the system to bring change. Individuals that we worked with, who ranged from entry-level staff members to Executive Vice Presidents, brought paid parental leave, greater transparency about salaries, an end to male-only panels, and a new focus on women’s leadership to their organizations. So, when we invite experimentation, we are confident that there are impassioned and strategically-minded people who are ready to take it on.
Fourth: Many leaders want to demonstrate that they are ready to step up and make a difference. In regard to sexual harassment, it is essential for all of us to understand and appreciate the difference between technical fixes and adaptive challenges. We must recognize, as the feminist thinker Susan Faludi reminded us in a recent op-ed in The New York Times, that toppling individual patriarchs who behave egregiously should not be mistaken for dismantling the patriarchy.
Finally: We have a practical and transformative recommendation that can be implemented to make an immediate difference in the lives and careers of women, as well as in the ethics and health of our systems. End the gender gap in pay. It actually is achievable. Iceland is doing it by making it essentially illegal to pay women less than men for the same work. Mark Benioff of Salesforce conducted a gender audit of salaries and spent $3,000,000 to close the gender wage gap in his company. The Jewish community can do it by having the funders who are eager to support women take this on. They can fund gender audits in our communal organizations and enlist leaders in righting the wrongs they will discover. It will help give women the sense of agency, visibility, and the concrete experience of being valued when they are paid the same amount as their male colleagues. By having funders initiate this work, it sends a strong message to our entire community about the seriousness of their commitment to address inequity. And, it will help open up the brave space that we need to do the deep work of transformation.
Shifra Bronznick is a social change strategist; Barbara Dobkin is a leading feminist donor activist who has founded and chaired many organizations and Joanna Samuels, a rabbi and social activist, is the executive director of a community center in Lower Manhattan. They partnered to lead Advancing Women Professionals & the Jewish Community.
This article emerged, in part, from our involvement in Shalom Hartman Institute of North America’s project, Created Equal: Men, Women and the Ethics of Shared Leadership.
You can write to the authors at [email protected], [email protected] and [email protected]