HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Nurturing in Day Schools Women’s Leadership

by Abby Sosland Issue: Nurturing Leadership
TOPICS : Leadership

Writing an article entitled “Nurturing Women’s Leadership in Day Schools” is a bit more complicated than it might seem. While many of the top leaders in Jewish education today are happy to discuss the issue, a number of women declined to have their names included in this piece and only spoke “off the record.” Even in 2009, when gender issues seem like a thing of the past, talking about women’s issues—in any area of Jewish professional life—still doesn’t feel safe to some people. Women fear complaining aloud; nobody wants to be labeled a “troublemaker.”

What exactly is going on? The position of women in day school leadership is better than it has ever been; women are well represented at the top tiers of educational leadership. According to the AVI CHAI Foundation’s 2007 survey of day school principals, nearly half (45%) of the principals of US day schools are women—a percentage that includes the Orthodox day schools, which are almost exclusively run by men.

In addition to the statistical reality, there is a clear consensus among much of the day school leadership that women’s voices are necessary in the highest rungs of Jewish educational institutions. Dr. Elliot Spiegel, headmaster at Solomon Schechter Day School of Westchester, stresses the importance of having a multiplicity of voices around the table. “Men and women have a different approach to everything: to leadership, to education, to G-d. After 40 years in this profession, it’s remarkable how noticeable [that] is when you sit around a table with women and men.”

Still, the AVI CHAI report shows that an important imbalance among principals remains.

Gender is a powerful factor in salary determinations, with women principals being paid significantly below what men earn… In their first year of service at their current school, no men earned below $60,000, while 10% of the women did. At the other end of the pay scale, there were men who earned above $180,000 in their first year, but no women. Ten percent of first-year women are in the three highest salary categories of $120,000 or above. The comparable statistic for men is nearly 40%. For principals who have served between 5-10 years at their present school, one-quarter of the women were paid above $120,000, while for men the figure is close to 60%...There can be no question that gender is a major factor in what principals are paid.

While great strides have been made, the financial glass ceiling has yet to be broken.

Yet the people I spoke with who are concerned about women’s roles in day schools do not spend much time complaining about the financial disparity. On a day-to-day basis, few people know what their colleagues are making. Instead, what they describe is a more subtle, nagging feeling of inequality, one that is not so easily articulated but that permeates the workplace.

Dr. Marc Kramer, Executive Director of RAVSAK, has noticed that men and women tend to end up in different roles, despite the appearance of high participation by women at the highest levels of educational leadership. High schools are mostly headed by men, while most of the lower schools are headed by women. “Schools function in loco parentis,” says Kramer. “The parent for which the school is serving proxy for in the lower school is Mommy. In the upper school it’s Daddy.” Women tend to be in the “caring profession” side of education—as teachers, department chairs, even principals—rather than the business side of education, as financial officers or heads of schools. “It’s like the difference between doctors and nurses. Doctors cure and nurses heal.”

Kramer also worries about the reality that women in the Jewish community are being at once encouraged to grow as leaders, and not to abandon pre-assigned family roles. Several women report that their schools have not opened up to different models of work/life balance, and there is still, in many places, an expectation to work around the clock. Penina Grossberg, educational consultant, suggests that nurturing women’s leadership would mean creating new styles of acceptable leadership. “We would create multiple constellations of professional options; look at the responsibilities and figure out how they could get done, instead of looking at the way the previous person worked and copying that. Just because someone worked 24/7 doesn’t mean we all should.” And she argues that this model is important for the larger community as a whole. “The best teachers are also learners. If you expect the professional leaders to neglect their family life and to show up at every meeting at their own personal expense, then what are you modeling for your students and for your communities?”

In some schools, women describe a sense that they are thinking in new ways about the work and the school systems, but they are having trouble getting their voices heard. Even when they do sit around the table, they feel reluctance among male colleagues to consider new perspectives, and some report that traditional stereotypes of men and women are still at play around boardroom tables. When women put forth new ideas, they are often described as aggressive, while men in the same situations are often celebrated for their innovative spirits. As one educator explains, “A young guy with commanding ideas fresh out of school is seen as confident where a woman might be seen as pushy and arrogant.”

In addition, several women described their sense that the path to the top requires far more time for them than for their male colleagues. One woman, a Judaic Studies department chair, reported that she has seen a number of men catapulted into leadership positions after only a few years in the classroom, whereas women seemed to need to “put in their time” in the classroom for many more years before climbing up the institutional ladders.

Despite these reports of disparity, both men and women agree that building gender equity must be a crucial piece of a Jewish educational vision, as young men and women learn from the models they see in their own schools. Dr. Spiegel claims, “The question is really: how do we nurture women’s leadership for twenty years from now? We have to nurture the idea of female leadership, giving women the authority, the prominence and the responsibility, so that they are visible in all areas of the school setting, from the classroom to the administration.”

Of course, recognizing the problem is a good first step. Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director at PEJE, recommends that the Jewish institutional community create a research agenda about women’s roles in Jewish day schools. In each community, questions should be asked about the perception of inequity, since what feels like equal treatment differs by population, even in the same school setting. Such a survey might include questions like: 1) Are both genders represented around the table? 2) Is there only one model of leadership, or are different models encouraged? 3) When different or uncomfortable ideas are voiced, are they pooh-poohed or are they welcomed into the conversation?

Shifra Bronznick, founding President of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, says that it’s hard for people to look honestly at their own communities, but it is an imperative element of creating lasting change. “Most people want to justify the system. I don’t buy into the idea that ‘if that’s the way it is, that’s the way it should be; there must be a reason.’ Instead, ‘the system is off… there may not be a good reason.’”

In the book she wrote with Didi Goldenhar and Marty Linsky, Leveling the Playing Field: Advancing Women in Jewish Organizational Life, Bronznick and her co-authors suggest that one of the keys to building gender equity is opening paths to develop new leadership. They propose a number of steps to take in this process.

  1. Create a structure for scouting and developing talent
  2. Cultivate a professional learning environment
  3. Seek opportunities for showcasing
  4. Add coaching and mentoring to the menu

Their suggestions include ways to make career advancement more equitable, by identifying talented professionals in an institution and encouraging them to articulate the skills they would like to develop. Leaders should invite high-potential women to important meetings as observers and look for “stretch” opportunities for women in the field, such as leading a special project or new committee, or participating in a cross-departmental strategy team.

It is certain that the Jewish community has made progress in building gender equity in the last decades, but there is still work to be done. Perhaps most important is to make it safe for our colleagues to offer institutional critique without fear of retaliation or subtle intimidation. ♦

Editor’s note: In 2006, RAVSAK was the only day school network to take part in The Conference on Change, a retreat focused on Jewish women, Jews of color, and LGBT Jews. Since then, we have dedicated entire issues of HaYidion to issues of diversity and equity and are proud to note that in this issue of HaYidion on leadership, 11 of 17 feature articles are written by women.

Rabbi Abby Sosland is on the Judaic Studies Faculty at Solomon Schechter High School of Westchester. She can be reached at RabbiSos@aol.com.

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