Women in Leadership: Are We Still Talking About This?

Why are women –51% of the Jews--still on our list of those minority populations in need of “inclusion”? Why still in the category of disadvantaged groups?

Here is part of the answer: Women are still underrepresented in the leadership of our communities. Girls outnumber boys in some Jewish camps and youth groups, but the leaders of co-ed groups are usually still the guys. In the adult Jewish world, women are rarely the featured speakers at community-wide events, and even less frequently invited or hired to head prestigious commissions and institutions. Women rabbis protest the stained-glass ceiling and young Jewish women professionals are forsaking the Jewish nonprofit world when they realize how slight are their chances of advancement.

Why does this matter?

For one thing, we’re missing out on a lot; the Jewish community could certainly use the talents, insights, brains and energy of a whole subset of the Jewish population. And for another, well-educated Jewish women are voting with their feet, taking their skills and their smarts into the secular world. Jewish women--the best-educated females in North America, according to the National Jewish Population Study--see multiple opportunities for themselves in the outside world as professionals, as volunteers, even as philanthropists, but paradoxically see fewer doors open to them in Jewish life. All of us who care about the creative survival of the Jewish people need to take responsibility for opening the doors wider to the halls of leadership, making sure that at the very least women are interviewed for executive-level jobs and nominated to serve in lay leadership positions.

But why should it matter that females are underrepresented on the boards of most Jewish day schools? Or that there is not yet gender parity in the Jewish institutions of communities supporting these schools? Isn’t this some kind of narrow-minded single-issue bean counting? Don’t we simply need to nominate the best leaders, hire the best educational administrators, support the best policy-makers, independent of their gender?


We also need to mirror the people who are being led, being served, being educated. If the experts who teach are all or mostly male, if the revered figures in a school—including those historical figures whose visages decorate the corridors—are exclusively male, if the community leaders whose work is honored at the annual fundraiser are all guys, then it’s hard for girls to imagine themselves someday assuming those leadership roles.

Day schools, community centers, and the whole alphabet soup of Jewish organizations have a large part to play in making sure girls and women are seen--and heard--in the community. Three simple steps toward greater gender inclusiveness (and I’m sure you can come up with steps four through 40):

• Try, yourself, whoever you are, to listen harder and better. The personal is political. A young woman who has not been listened to and heard, had her strengths recognized and supported, who has not had a chance to lead, to work with a critical mass of other women, and who—importantly—has not had strong female role models is at risk as she makes her own career and life decisions. She may not even feel empowered to reject unwanted sexual encounters, or may not feel she can assert herself in myriad other classroom and social circumstances.

• Encourage diversity training for classroom teachers and school administrators, federation and JCC personnel. Being conscious that a teacher calls on male students more often than female, or that school committees are staffed more often by boys than girls, or that girls’ athletic activities are funded skimpily compared to those sports played mostly by boys, or that girls are discouraged subtly from taking advanced math or boxing or Talmud, can help reduce the disparities.

• Make sure community events--panel discussions for parents, for example, or school assemblies, graduation speakers, honorees at fundraisers--feature female as well as male experts. Women Talmud scholars or Middle East policy mavens or social justice activists, for example. (Lilith magazine maintains a Talent Bank of women in fields from AIDS to Zionism, and can point you towards other resources as well.) Girls need to hear women’s voices—and to see that these voices are heeded, are heard with respect. Women role models are crucial for female as well as male students to be able to envision a more inclusive Jewish future.

Susan Weidman Schneider Editor in Chief of Lilith magazine (www.Lilith.org) since its launch 30 years ago, is the author of several books, among them Jewish & Female: Choices and Changes in Our Lives Today and Intermarriage: The Challenge of Living with Differences Between Christians and Jews.
Susan Weidman Schneider
Knowledge Topics
Professional Leadership
Published: Fall 2007