Sexism in the Federation System Holding Back Women, Report Says

Sexism pervades the North American Jewish federation system, a new report says. An “old-boys’ network” and an attitude that rejects women’s leadership skills have kept women’s from reaching the top echelons of the federation system, according to research released recently by the United Jewish Communities and a group called Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community.

The study, based on interviews with a cross-section of North American federation leaders from January to September 2003, sought to understand why women have not reached top executive spots in the largest 20 Jewish communities in North America.ld Some of those quoted in the report seem to reflect sexist attitudes. “Just because a man might look at a woman as a sexual object doesn’t mean that he’s not taking her seriously professionally,” said one male lay leader interviewed in the report. “I mean, does every woman have to be Golda Meir? My advice to women is to be presentable and play to your femininity,” he said. “Men want to preen, and they will respond favorably to the right package.”

In its recommendations, the report advised the system to groom a significant number of lowand mid-level female staff members for senior positions, create flexible work environments that make it easier to balance career and family, and make gender balance a criterion of executive search processes. The report recommends experimenting with new models to promote gender equity, monitoring progress through data collection and integrating women’s initiatives into federations’ executive development programs.

The UJC, the umbrella group for North American Jewish federations, paid for and commissioned the report at the request of Stephen Hoffman, the group’s president and CEO. Hoffman said one impetus for the project was a conversation he had with a female Jewish student who was hesitant to enter Jewish communal work because of the dearth of female role models in top jobs. The situation reflects the gender imbalance in the corporate world, with which many federation volunteers are associated, Hoffman said. While he doesn’t yet have a precise plan to address the issue, “the first thing you do is you throw light on the issue,” Hoffman said, and then “keep the light focused on this.”

Hoffman said he plans to track and publish figures on the numbers of male and female candidates considered in systemwide searches. “We provide the backbone of personnel service in the field, and we’re going to use that vantage point to push this concern and this issue deeper into the consciousness of our member federations,” he said. Hoffman also wants to recruit women into the system’s new Mandel Executive Development program and work with women on maternity leave to smooth their returns to work. The report comes as the UJC is seeking a successor to Hoffman, who is stepping down in June. The search committee’s top choices are said to come from the pool of large-city federation executives, all of whom are men and some of whom have been considered for the job in the past. UJC has not hired an external search firm, which some say would be more likely to consider a wider field of candidates.

Hoffman said issues of gender bias were addressed with the search committee, and that “the consultant assisting the search did not limit the consultations only to men.” Federation leaders and observers applauded the report, which they called the federation system’s most comprehensive attempt yet to investigate and rectify sex discrimination. They also believe the system’s leaders will carry out the report’s recommendations. “The first sign of a readiness to change is a willingness to take an honest look at yourself, and I think the decision by UJC to even engage in this study is a very healthy sign for the future based on a very unhealthy present,” said Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Foundation and a former executive of the UJA- Federation of New York.

Shifra Bronznick, president of Advancing Women Professionals, called the report a “breakthrough.” “It puts the issues squarely on the table about how bias affects women and how ~ male networks affect women and how the different perceptions about leadership style affect women,” she said. Bronznick adds that women’s success is a benchmark for the system’s health. “When you identify the best ways to advance women, you identify the best ways to create workplaces to advance everybody and allow our professionals to fulfill their real potential for excellence,” she said.

Among the report’s findings:
– Female professionals face a “leaky pipeline” in the federation system, with sizable numbers in lower ranks but few at the top. The representation of female professionals increases as job prestige declines.
– No women hold chief executive positions in Jewish federations in the largest U.S. cities -though some have held the top lay positions — and women hold just 28 percent of sub-executive positions in those cities.
– In large-intermediate cities, women hold 16 percent of the chief executive positions and 47 percent of sub-executive positions.
– Women are held to a different standard than men. For example, the report claims, aggressive leadership is valued in men but is disdained in women and can cost them top jobs.
– Despite advances in women’s philanthropy, federation leaders question women’s ability to raise funds, a key requirement for top executive positions.
– The network that refers and recruits executive-level candidates is male-dominated and more likely to recommend other men.

According to Bronznick, UJC must apply the recommendations quickly but shouldn’t regard the report as a recipe to which federations can simply “add water and stir.” “It has to be about people really understanding what all the elements of change are and grappling with them themselves,” she said. “Otherwise things are going to be very superficiaL”

Janet Engelhart, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island, said executive training is key to increasing female representation. Her move from planning director at the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh to her current job was due mainly to her participation in the Mandel Executive Development program, she said. The program is a “pipeline for top jobs” that “really encouraged me to apply for different CEO positions,” she said.
But not even women are immune to sexism, apparently. The women on the search committee that picked Engelhart in Rhode Island “had the most concern about whether a woman would be seen as strong enough for the community,” she said.


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