Shifra Bronznick is the founder and president of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community (www.advancingwomen.org), and Didi Goldenhar serves as the senior program director. Marty Linsky, a frequent faculty member for the Wexner Foundation, teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School and is co-founder and principal of the consultancy, Cambridge Leadership Associates (www.cambridge-leadership.com) They have co-authored the newly-released “Leveling the Playing Field: Advancing Women in Jewish Organizational Life”.
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Parshat Shemini is a powerful cautionary tale about the high price of being anointed as a leader of the Jewish people. Following seven days of preparation, Aaron and his sons, Nadav and Avihu, are ready to enter the Tent of Meeting on the eighth day and assume their priestly roles. But Nadav and Avihu transgress – and there are many interpretations about the nature of their transgression. As it is written, “and they offered before the Lord alien fire, when the Lord had not enjoined them.” Nadav and Avihu are consumed by fire – put to death by God who had anointed them.
Leadership can be a dangerous and painful enterprise in the Torah. Three siblings who led the Jewish people in different ways each faced terrible losses. Aaron is forced to endure the death of two sons, a tragedy so devastating he can only respond with silence. Miriam is afflicted with leprosy, a disease that produces isolation as well as suffering. The Sisyphean leadership journey of Moses culminates in the sadness of being forbidden to enter the Promised Land that he had traveled towards for forty years.
In modern Jewish life, we talk about leaders all the time. But we don’t acknowledge the dangers of assuming leadership. If you look behind the podiums and beyond the corner offices, it becomes apparent that we are aware of those risks and as a result, inside our organizations, we are all understandably uncomfortable about exercising leadership and challenging the status quo.
Knowing the lessons from our tradition helps explain why our community lags behind most other sectors in ending gender bias and closing the leadership gap for women.
Numerous studies document the inequities– from the gender gap in salary to the stereotyped perceptions of women’s career potential to the nonexistent or poor policies around parental leave and work-life flexibility.
Nevertheless, people in authority often insist that there is no real problem since women are everywhere in these organizations and that the leadership gap will disappear by itself, over time.
Over the years, we have spoken with thousands of women in the Jewish community, professionals and volunteers at every rung on the ladder. While many confirm the effects of gender bias on their own careers or volunteer trajectory, few are willing confront their organizational heads or board presidents to insist on tangible, measurable change, with benchmarks for progress and accountability.
Who can blame them? The costs of speaking up in the Jewish community (much less initiating the litigation which has fueled progress for women in other sectors) are too severe. At the very least, anyone who raises these provocative questions risks all kinds of trouble, such as being marginalized by the CEO, alienating the donors, or being labeled as a troublemaker who puts her personal needs ahead of the Jewish community.
Our organizations are mission-driven, focused on saving the Jewish people physically or spiritually or saving the world. Women feel they are transgressing if they insist that issues of advancement, visibility and flexibility be placed front and center on the agenda.
We deeply disagree with the idea that these issues are distractions from the core mission. Rather, we believe that there is an inextricable link between making organizations more equitable for women and more effective for everyone.
To make changes around gender equity is the ultimate adaptive leadership challenge for the Jewish community. That’s why the three of us have partnered, to develop tools and strategies that allow people to advocate for change without endangering their career aspirations or philanthropic positions. This collaboration between our two organizations—Advancing Women Professionals in the Jewish Community and Cambridge Leadership Associates—has resulted in a new guidebook: Leveling the Playing Field: Advancing Women in Jewish Organizational Life. Our hope is to inspire people all around the country to become part of a network to change our community.
In this transformed community, leaders will be assessed by their ability to create institutions that cultivate people’s talents and pay them fairly. Flexibility, parental leave, on-ramps and off-ramps and intelligent work-life policies will be a norm. In this new kind of community, people from every generation and every part of the organization will be enlisted to think about the big issues of the Jewish future.
The kind of change we’re talking about is a Jewish community where women truly share leadership with men. This hope can be a reality, if we act together to make the change.