Women’s Leadership Will Transform Our Organizations

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April 1, 2002
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By Shifra Bronznick

At this moment in the evolution of American Jewish life, our community needs leaders who can balance continuity and change – sustaining a broad array of existing programs while developing innovative initiatives. Expanding and democratizing this circle will bring new vision and resiliency to the Jewish communal agenda.

Women, with their distinct skills and talents, should be a powerful source of Jewish professional leadership. But despite the significant proportion of women in the ranks of Jewish communal organizations, there is a tremendous gender imbalance at the top of the field.

To achieve gender equity, we must begin to intervene strategically in the decision-making and selection process of leadership. And we must be prepared to compete with the numerous prestigious professional opportunities that are increasingly available to Jewish women in the general not-for-profit and philanthropic fields.

The evidence of gender bias in the Jewish world is troubling. Advocacy by Ma’yan: The Jewish Women’s Project of the JCC in Manhattan has been a catalyst for recent breakthroughs in women’s volunteer leadership as Board Presidents of Jewish organizations, including AIPAC, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism. However, there is virtually no representation of women among chief professionals of major organizations.

Among the 40 large city federations, there is only one woman chief executive. Among the major public policy and advocacy agencies, only the Jewish Council on Public Affairs has appointed a woman as a chief executive in recent years. Men also occupy the top leadership roles addressing renaissance and renewal from Jewish Educational Services of North America to Hillel and the Jewish Community Center Association. In the religious world, institutions serving all of the denominations from Orthodox to Reconstructionist have male professional heads.

The situation in the general nonprofit and philanthropic arena is significantly better. In the field of higher education, women lead three out of eight Ivy League universities. In philanthropy, women lead 51 percent of foundations, among them the Ford Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Despite these important gains, a gaping gender gap exists in most workplaces – particularly in corporations and government, where only 10-13 percent of the top positions are held by women. This imbalance has affected women who generally receive more limited financial and professional assistance in every field.

With fewer resources and weaker support for career advancement, many women have been compelled to create new, less hierarchical methods for accruing skills, improving access to information, and developing professional networks. It is not coincidental that the increasing presence of women in middle management has occurred simultaneously with the growing corporate emphasis on team-oriented, collaborative management. For example, Judy Rosener, in a study of female CEOs published in the Harvard Business Review, found that women set a high priority on creating productive collaborative entities in which all members of the team benefited from participation, regardless of rank. Similarly, when researcher Lyn Kathlene studied the ways in which men and women legislators chaired committees, she found that male chairs frequently took the floor away from speakers and interrupted to make substantive points. By contrast, women legislators chairing committees interrupted less, took fewer turns, and used their authority to facilitate group discussions.

There is consistent evidence that women are playing a primary role in bringing a more facilitative and inclusive leadership style to the professional environment. While there are women who have adopted the traditional “command and control” style of leadership, the trends suggest that, by and large, women have compensated for their minority leadership status and the relative scarcity of resources by developing other attributes for leadership. These mechanisms – which include listening skills, a fine-tuned sense of timing, and the ability to bring together diverse voices around common goals – have emerged as key components for success in the postmodern workplace.

Jewish organizations have much to gain from the collaborative leadership style offered by a largely untapped talent pool of women. The emergence of a new facilitative style of leadership will serve as an important asset for Jewish organizations, which need executives who can orchestrate discussions among Jews whose concerns range widely across many spectrums of interest and affiliation.

Our organizations will begin to attract many new voices if women succeed in playing leadership roles in the debates and discussions to revitalize our communities. For women, who often cite the experience of having their opinions overlooked and their ideas credited to others, attaining a position of leadership is frequently accompanied by a commitment to reaching out to others whose voices also are needed in the communal conversation.

It is critical that we consolidate the intellectual, spiritual, and cultural capital hidden in the crevices of the Jewish world. Among others, we must especially listen to the concerns of young women professionals who are becoming frustrated with the imbalance in communal decision-making and are deciding to look elsewhere to build their professional careers.

Bringing women into leadership is an important signal of the community’s commitment to equity and excellence for each and every American Jew. As we find ways to break through barriers for women, we will begin to create prototypes for change in many arenas of Jewish life.

Women alone cannot change the community. But if the community can change so that women’s leadership is welcomed, we will have taken a significant first step in reinventing Jewish organizational life for the 2lst century.

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Shifra Bronznick is a partner of the change management consulting firm Bronznick Jacoby LLC and is Founding President of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community.

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