Gender Bias Is a Fact of Communal Life

By Steven M. Cohen and Shaul Kelner

Published June 23, 2006, issue of June 23, 2006.
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A by-now widely reported accident took place at Wye Plantation last week. The Jewish People Policy Planning Institute convened a meeting of Jewish organizational leaders to discuss the future of the Jewish people — but hardly any women leaders were invited, hardly any were expected to participate before dozens of Jews sent protest letters to the organizers, and hardly any women showed up even after the organizers scrambled to rectify the disturbing “accident” of gross gender disparity in this highly visible meeting.

Everyone agrees that the failure to include a serious number of women leaders was an accident, but what sort of accident was it? Was it, as talk-show host Jon Stewart might describe it, an itsy-bitsy-little, I-didn’t-mean-to-do-it, planning-institute-should-have-planned-better accident? One that has never happened before and will never, ever happen again?

Or was it an accident waiting to happen? Was it, in fact, only the most recent emanation of an institute and a communal system riddled with gender bias — a bias that manifests itself with fair regularity in the Jewish world, week in and week out?

To listen to the director of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, Avinoam Bar-Yosef, who apparently had more to do with the planning of the event than the institute’s well-known chair, former ambassador Dennis Ross, the accident was an aberration. Responding to a trenchant critique by professor Deborah Lipstadt, Bar-Yosef points to the many women involved in the conduct of the institute’s truly impressive work. “Gender equality,” he intones, “is very important and we will continue to increase the presence of women at the institute.” Really?

Bar-Yosef fails to relate to the systematic gender bias endemic to his institute, and readily apparent to anyone who examines its Web site. Of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute’s top three leaders — namely, chairman, founding president and director general — all are male. Of the thirteen board members, one is female. Of the institute’s five senior fellows, all are male. Of its seven fellows, one is female. Of the nine people heading the institute’s main projects, all are male. Of the authors listed as having written publications under the institute’s imprimatur, all are male. Of the nine people mentioned by name on the Web site’s “news and events” page, all are male.

The institute’s senior fellows, Bar-Yosef insists, “weren’t hired because they’re men, but on their merits.” Presumably this rationale extends to its top leaders, board members, fellows, authors of recent publications, heads of the main projects and figures deemed newsworthy.

In point of fact, for the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute the Wye Plantation guest list was no aberration. But, more importantly and quite tragically, the institute itself is no aberration, at least not in the Jewish world.

Over the years, we have conducted eight separate studies, both quantitative and qualitative, of gender equity in the Jewish communal world. Wherever we turn we find the same pattern. Women are under-represented in the lay and professional top leadership of Jewish communal organizations. As professionals, women receive substantially less compensation than men performing equivalent tasks.

We have seen these patterns in the Jewish federation world, where no woman has served as CEO of any of the largest federations — ever. We have seen these patterns in Conservative synagogues, where women are more active than men in all roles except for governance and liturgical leadership. We have seen them in the Conservative rabbinate, where only one woman has ever served as the leading rabbi in a large congregation, and where women rabbis get paid less than male counterparts as spiritual leaders of congregations of similar size. And we have seen them in the Jewish professional world, where the compensation patterns of JCC directors and of all communal professionals display substantial gender-related disparities, even after statistically controlling for the status of the position and the qualifications of the professionals.

Gender bias — discrimination against women — is systemic and pervasive in Jewish life, as it is in the larger society. It is also sad, wasteful, and offensive, especially to American Jews. Since the emergence of the modern feminist movement in America and the subsequent rise of the Jewish feminist movement, sensitivity to gender issues has become a constituent element in the identity of leading American Jews, both women and men.

Like many problems, gender bias in Jewish life can be rectified, at least in part, by recognizing the problem, resolving to fix it, and remedying the issue. In our own personal and professional lives, we also struggle to remain aware of our own gender biases. When asked to speak on panels, we ask about their gender composition. When arranging conferences, research projects and other professional activities, we think, we count, we invite.

But the first responsibility is to recognize just how deep is the problem, and how widespread is the failure to comprehend the impact of systematic and ongoing bias. Bar-Yosef and the many others who share his views may appreciate the virtues of Jewish women as mothers, but it is questionable whether they sufficiently appreciate the virtues of Jewish women as leaders, professionals, thinkers and colleagues.

The Jewish People Policy Planning Institute’s invitation list to the Wye Plantation meeting was no accident. The leadership ranks of the institute are no accident. Sexism is a pervasive problem in Jewish life, and it has ensnared the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute to its own detriment and to that of its plans for the Jewish people.

No organization can plan well for the Jewish future while mired in the past. But as it stands, the institute’s preference for the old-boys network is positioning it very well to deal with the challenges of 1956.

In a wider world and a Jewish world where gender bias is the order of the day, “men of good conscience” — and especially men — can no longer stand idly by. Rather, for reasons of good principle, good politics and good performance, we must insist upon abiding by the norm of gender diversity as a precondition to our personal participation, be it on panels or on the plantation.

Steven M. Cohen is research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Shaul Kelner is assistant professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University.

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