Women’s Work

By Larisa Klebe

About 70% of Jewish nonprofit workers are women. It follows that, COVID-19 pandemic or not, the majority of work in our field is done by women. In an earlier piece for eJP I argued that anything labeled as “women’s work,” which much of the work in the Jewish nonprofit sector is, is undervalued in our society. I’m not saying anything new when I assert that much of the work done in our sector is undervalued and underpaid. It’s been somewhat heartening to see that, in this current environment, many are calling attention to the vital nature of our work. The question is if any of this will translate into tangible outcomes – namely better and more equitable pay for women workers.

This conversation, in some ways, can be connected to the larger conversation taking place about essential workers; and, it’s worth noting that nonwhite women are more likely to be doing essential jobs than anyone else. In a recent article from The Atlantic, the author states: “Cashiers and shelf-stockers and delivery-truck drivers aren’t heroes. They’re victims. To call them heroes is to justify their exploitation. By praising the blue-collar worker’s public service, the progressive consumer is assuaged of her cognitive dissonance. When the world isn’t falling apart, we know the view of us is usually as faceless, throwaway citizens. The wealthy CEO telling his thousands of employees that they are vital, brave, and noble is a manipulative strategy to keep them churning out profits.” Now, the situation with Jewish nonprofit workers is arguably different, but there are parallels. How many of us have been told how valuable we are and how necessary our work is but haven’t seen those sentiments reflected in our paychecks? How many of us have been praised for our passion, dedication, and excellent work, yet have been turned down for raises and promotions?

Understandably, we are currently seeing significant furloughing, as well as hours and salary reductions in the field. This means that many in our workforce are currently working just as hard (or even harder) for less pay and fewer benefits. I know that we are all eager for things to get back to “normal,” but we must remember that our “normal” isn’t good.

Our field has always relied on a certain amount of unpaid labor – mostly done by women – whether volunteer or staff. Again, this conversation about the perpetual undervaluing of women’s work is not a new one, the pandemic just allows us to view it through a new lens. A recent eJP piece by Dr. Shira D. Epstein asked how we can support Jewish educators in particular in this current moment, and show them that we recognize their work. My answer to this important question is that we make a real effort toward compensating adequately and equitably throughout the field. Money may be especially tight right now, but pandemic or not it seems there’s always a reason to not prioritize this issue. Are we going to continue falling back on these tired excuses? Or are we going to use this moment as an opportunity to clean up our act? If we are to truly practice what we preach, the only option is the latter.

70% of Jewish nonprofit workers are women, but the majority of the highest-paying, highest-ranking jobs are still held by men. This is also about power: who has it, and who doesn’t. It’s no coincidence that the work done by women in the field is systematically undervalued, and that those with the power to change this are mostly not women. We desperately need a rebalancing of our top leadership; until that happens I don’t believe we’ll see significant change in this arena. That being said, it’s not just about having more women at the top, but about having more people in general who understand the systemic inequalities that plague our field as much as any other, and who have a real desire to alter the status quo.

We – all of us – must also change the way we talk to and about our majority women workforce. Words of praise don’t only ring hollow when they’re not tangibly backed up, but are also harmful – a tool used to perpetuate workers’ exploitation. Heroes are defined by acts of selflessness and sacrifice. It’s not uncommon to hear members of our workforce described as “heroes” or “superheroes,” but all this does is solidify the idea that this work, by nature, requires sacrifice, and that therefore we shouldn’t expect or push for better treatment. Moving away from this rhetoric is a necessary step toward doing a better job of truly valuing our Jewish nonprofit workforce.

I want to end on a hopeful note. Yes, this COVID-19 pandemic is brutal and unforgiving, and much will be lost because of it. In addition, it has laid bare and amplified a whole host of gross inequalities in our society. That being said, we have an opportunity for a real “phoenix rising from the ashes” moment, and I do have hope that we will ultimately emerge better than our previous “normal.” The Jewish nonprofit sector is full of dreamers and innovators, and we undoubtedly have the potential to apply the lessons from this pandemic to change how we value our majority-women workforce. So, let’s make like a phoenix, and rise.

Larisa Klebe is a Jewish educator and programs professional, and is particularly passionate about women and girl’s empowerment. She’s a member of the Salary Transparency Working Group sponsored by the Gender Equity in Hiring Project.