Where Are The Women?

Three out of every four employees in the federation system are women, so why are only two of the 19 largest federations run by women?

by Haviv Rettig Gur

Women have flourished in recent years in the most influential positions in American Jewish life. The Rabbinical Assembly, the Wexner Foundation, Tablet, the Forward, Joshua Venture Group, American Jewish World Service, Mazon, Natan, PresenTense, the Samuel Bronfman Foundation – all are headed by women.

Women constitute a majority among America’s rabbis (outside the Orthodox world, of course) and a large majority of Jewish organizational employees.

But in one major field of Jewish organized life women are still largely absent at the top: the federation. While 48 federations – out of 155 in North America – are headed by women, the percentage drops precipitously when it comes to the large federations who raise and manage the lion’s share of the federation world’s funds.

Just two federations among the “Big 19” – the 19 largest community federations – are headed by women: Montreal’s Deborah Corber and San Francisco’s Jennifer Gorovitz. Both are new appointees, with Gorovitz becoming the first woman ever to head a “Big 19” federation in 2010, and Corber joining the list just last year.

According to Shifra Bronznick, a senior fellow at NYU’s Wagner Research Center for Leadership in Action and founder of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, the lack of women at the top of the federation system is significant. It is a symptom, she says, of internal challenges that federations must face and overcome if they are to thrive.

The cultural factors for the disparity paint a picture of an institution out of touch with some of the key trends in today’s Jewish world.

She explains one factor diplomatically: “The search process is often centered around volunteer leaders. It is often difficult in these search processes to name and dismantle some of the limited perceptions of women’s abilities that influence these processes in a negative way.”

Second, “these organizations [often] do not have long term plans for succession, nor do they work actively to develop talent within organization that has potential to take on leadership.”

Third, there are cultural limits placed on self-criticism – whether on this issue or more generally – for the simple reason that federations are fundraising organizations. Criticism, many federation leaders fear, will affect how donors perceive (and give to) the organization. This makes it unlikely that the leadership of federations will identify the problems that prevent women from rising to top posts. If you don’t name the challenge, you can’t tackle it.”

Fourth, federations, like other large Jewish organizations, have “a very CEO-centric culture” that sees the chief executives holding on to their jobs for decades at a time. Federations do not “take full advantage of the opportunities to cultivate and groom people to share leadership publicly with the CEO.”

And fifth, in most federations not enough consideration is given to women’s work-life demands, including more flexible hours, maternity leave and the like.

The good news: there is awareness in the system, and even a few first steps being taken, at least at the national umbrella level, to effect change. And one of the leaders of this effort, Bronznick is quick to note, is JFNA itself, the umbrella of the federation system.

“Under [JFNA chief executive] Jerry Silverman, JFNA did adopt parental leave, and flexible work arrangements, policies that will make it more likely that women stay inside [the federation world] and achieve what they can.” JFNA is trying to influence the rest of the federation system to do the same, she adds.

Thus, UJA-Federation of New York was the first local federation to adopt these policies and together with JFNA they are encouraging other federations to do the same. Most recently, the Baltimore Associated instituted flexible work arrangements, and the Greater Miami Jewish Federation offers modest paid parental leave.

As Joe Berkofsky, head of media relations for JFNA, notes, JFNA’s “flex-time policies” mean that “staff can work out flexible, off-peak schedules with their managers or adapt telecommuting procedures. JFNA has also gone beyond legal minimums with maternity leave and adapted parental leave in cases where men or adoptive parents can be with their children.”

Indeed, at the national level, women’s visibility has grown. At this year’s General Assembly in Baltimore, organized by JFNA, some 40% of panelists and speakers will be women.

Another example of these efforts: a JFNA Professional Women’s Conference, held in each of the last two years, that offers women federation professionals networking opportunities, advice and skills to advance their careers.

It is still too early to tell if these halting steps will trickle down into the community federations and lead to a more diverse leadership cadre at the top of the federation world.

The professional women’s conferences, Bronznick notes, “need to be robustly supported by local federation CEOs. They need to see it as a top priority to make sure the best women in the field know about these conferences and are able to participate in them.”

As yet, “there is insufficient commitment to professional development and leadership development over the course of women’s careers, and a lack of innovative thinking about creative ways to share leadership broadly in these organizations.”

At the end of the day, whether federations can enable women to become leaders will speak volumes about their viability as institutions in the coming years.

“There is a growing bifurcation,” Bronznick has written, “between the organizations that are healthy and vital and have clarity about their mission, and are confident about their ability to make progress toward their goals, and those that are declining in effectiveness, losing donors, and having a diminishing sense of morale and esprit de corps.”

It’s not hard to guess which ones have more women at the top.