“Women Hold Up Half the Sky”: An Old Chinese Proverb

April 1, 2002
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By Cindy Chazan

I grew up in Montreal where family, day school, youth groups, summer camp, and Jewish Stud-ies at McGill University were all interwoven threads of a Jewish life that circled around home. My expected trajectory: do well in school, get married, create a Jewish home.

Never thinking of myself as different, I fully expected to be part of that continuum. But mentors and circumstances intervened: Professor Ben Ravid, a Jewish History professor, pushed me to apply to the Hornstein Program at Brandeis University. There, Professor Bernard Reisman became a mentor and encouraged me to see that professional opportunities were limitless. Professor Ruth Wisse and Nahum Ravel modeled behavior of Jewish leadership and learning that I wanted to emulate.

These mentors convinced me that no opportunities in the Jewish community would be barred to me because I was a woman, and they helped me strategize my future. Soon I moved into a male-dominated Jewish organizational culture where my predecessors had all been men and the top lay leaders determining my destiny were mostly men, as were my professional colleagues.

At that time, women moving up the general corporate ladder dressed in manly suits, wore ties, and learned all the necessary “male skills and metaphors” to make it in that world. The mantra became, “Do anything possible to avoid accentuating a femininity that leads to being stereotyped.”

While I shared the same intensity and commitment to the job as my male colleagues and friends, I also brought to the workplace characteristics often associated with the way women lead – characteristics that had been previously undervalued or ridiculed, and that I hoped to turn into an honest advantage. This became obvious when I was appointed Executive of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford in 1992. I believe I offered a needed compassion toward a community that had suffered severe economic setbacks, an annual campaign in free-fall, and despondent lay leaders and professionals. For example, instead of abandoning major donors who were unable to continue making high-level gifts, I suggested we create a strategy that honored them for past generosity and worked with their children. As a result of maintaining these relationships, when their economic situations improved, they remembered and returned as donors. Initially I was criticized for being too nurturing – not businesslike. But the strategy worked.

My leadership style reflects the principles of other women leaders. I create strategies for the communities I serve by orchestrating relationships and creating inclusive rather than hierarchical environments. Shaping such work settings is labor intensive and can leave room for surprises. It also occasions the risk of appearing weak.

There have been times when I wondered if my leadership was being scrutinized more closely because I am a woman. What do I need to do to ensure the community never regrets its unusual decision to hire a woman for my position? I share these doubts with many women executives in the corporate world.

In addition to being a new executive, I was a new mother. Family came before my job – a statement I made public to both the search committee and the Federation Board. As concerned as I was about doing a good job, I was equally aware of the voices that said, “My career is only part of my identity.” “Do right for your children.” “Above all, be a good parent.”

Being candid about these issues helped create a family-sensitive work environment that accepted as the norm taking a child to the doctor and leaving work to attend a school play. My career choices determined how my family functioned, often necessitating complicated arrangements and compromises. My husband, who was also a Jewish community executive, caring parent, and supportive spouse, was less affected by this tension.

While the Jewish community is slowly awakening to the realization that it has neglected to look at women as viable, talented candidates for executive leadership, there are still male gate keepers. Lay and professional men sitting in the Jewish communal boardrooms remain, shockingly, unfamiliar with potential women candidates who have yet to appear on their screens. These leaders, therefore, choose to promote mostly male candidates. What will it take for them to understand they are ignoring more than half of the population? While Jewish communal organizations have spoken about this for years, there has been no purposeful action until the recent “Advancing Women Professionals” initiative supported by the Trust for Jewish Philanthropy. The initiative could not have been created at a more critical juncture to help us meet this challenge.

Jewish communal lay leaders – both men and women – need to ask themselves honestly if they have been good to their rabbis and other professional leaders. Many, sadly, have not. Are their actions and attitudes contributing to the flight of good professionals from the community? The Jewish community must face the environmental and cultural phenomena that transcends gender and prevents talented young men and women from aspiring to top levels of professional leadership.

I would never have forfeited my opportunity to be a Federation Executive, and I will do everything possible to enable young men and women to achieve their professional goals. Maybe today I can be a better guide, pointing out landmines both real and imagined, without diminishing dreams.

And I hope that when the glass ceiling finally disappears, women will still patiently be waiting on the other side, prepared to accept the opportunities offered by caring lay partners and committed to working together for the good of the Jewish people.

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Cindy Chazan is Director of Alumni and Community Development for the Wexner Foundation.

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