Making Jewish Paychecks Fair

Public Judaism

By Jill Jacobs

Published December 01, 2010, issue of December 10, 2010.
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Just a week before the Paycheck Fairness Act died in the U.S. Senate, we learned that female Jewish communal professionals are paid, on average, $28,000 less than men working in the field, according to data from a new study by the Jewish Communal Service Association and the Berman Jewish Policy Archive. When the data is adjusted for job responsibilities, education, age, experience and hours worked, women still earn $20,000 less than men at the same levels.

Since the release of the study, there has been the requisite hand-wringing from Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders about the need to promote women’s leadership. But changing the balance of male and female leadership will take nothing less than a sea change in the professional culture of the Jewish community. Here are a few suggestions about how to bring about this change:

1) Make salary scales public: Many of my female colleagues (myself included) have negotiated a salary only to find out later that men in similar positions — sometimes with fewer qualifications — earn significantly more. Certainly, women should learn to negotiate better, and we should be trained by rabbinical and graduate programs to do so. However, the burden is on organizations to create transparent salary scales, and to offer women the same salaries given to men. We can start by listing salaries in job announcements, rather than using the protection of “salary commensurate with experience” to pay men more. The Paycheck Fairness Act would have helped women gain necessary information as they negotiate salaries. But the Jewish community need not wait for an act of Congress to pursue its own paycheck fairness.

2) Replace mishpokhe with professionalism: Thinking of ourselves as mishpokhe, rather than as workers for professional organizations, engenders an aversion to written policies in favor of handshake agreements. But the result of the mishpokhe factor is a lack of transparency. Individual women (and men) may work out flex-time deals or other family-friendly arrangements. But these handshakes leave each individual to negotiate for himself or herself, without a sense of what is fair. Written policies guarantee that every employee will be treated the same, regardless of negotiating skills or relationship to the decision makers.

3) Hold organizations responsible for bad behavior: Among the bad behavior stories I have heard: A friend applying for a job in a midsized Jewish community is told that she is the best applicant, but will not be offered the job because single women tend to move away once they learn how difficult the dating scene is in the area. A rabbi negotiating a contract with a synagogue fights off a proposed clause that would restrict her from taking maternity leave during the High Holy Days. Job applicants are asked outright about their plans to have babies.

Some information travels by word of mouth, but we cannot rely on word of mouth to protect women from unscrupulous employers. In a post on the Forward’s Sisterhood blog last year, Rabbi Joanna Samuels suggested creating a website where organizations could post their employment policies. This proposal would go far in showcasing the best and the worst of the official policies. Perhaps such a site would allow for reader comments so that we might also learn about the best and the worst unofficial behavior. In addition, it is time for an annual ranking of Jewish workplaces, akin to the workplace rankings that U.S. News & World Report and The NonProfit Times publish. Such a ranking, based both on official policies and on surveys of employees, would reward those organizations with exemplary behavior and challenge others to change.

4) Don’t use the “mommy track” as an excuse: Many point to the so-called “mommy track” as the reason that women — especially women in their 30s and 40s — do not advance to senior positions. These women, the argument goes, drop out of competition as they choose to prioritize child rearing over their careers. It is true that many women (and men) are not content to see their children only on weekends. For some, taking a high-level job means extensive travel and regular night meetings. The response, though, should not be to blame those who refuse to take on these punishing schedules (nor to refrain from offering top jobs to mothers). If the Jewish community wishes both to promote healthy family life and to make space for women’s leadership, we need to create a work culture that does not assume a 24-hour work cycle, constant travel and attendance at every conference — for leaders of any gender.

Instead, let’s create clear and achievable goals that allow leaders to do their jobs well while also maintaining family lives, volunteer service, and involvement in spiritual and cultural communities.

If we are to equalize opportunity for women and men in the Jewish community, nothing short of radical change will be necessary. But the result will be a community that benefits from the wisdom and skills of the best possible professional staff.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the author of “There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition” (Jewish Lights, 2009).


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