Are Women or Communal Structures to Blame for Economic Disparities?
A year after the Forward reported on how women in the Jewish communal workforce lag behind their male counterparts in pay and promotion, a new study released this week reinforces the economic discrimination against women in American Jewish communal life. “Profiling the Professionals: Who’s Serving Our Communities?” authored by Steven M. Cohen for the Berman Jewish Policy Archive demonstrates that women in Jewish communal work earn on average $28,000 a year less than men for equal work – or $20,000 a year when mitigating factors are considered. At the risk of stating the obvious, I would like to say that $28,000 is a lot of money. In Israel, that is considered a decent annual salary.
“Although women comprise about two-thirds of the professional workforce,” the report states, “their salaries, on whole, continue to lag significantly below their male counterparts. This pervasive issue remains a concern for attracting and retaining the best talent for the field.”
Economic discrimination against women is so rampant and so widely reported at this point that it’s surprising that the problem has not been redressed yet. In Israel, the problem seems to be getting worse, as women’s wages of 62 agurot for every man’s shekel has remained almost constant since the early 1980s. So the question on everyone’s minds seems to be, why aren’t women’s economic lives noticeably improving?
There is a growing and, perhaps, disturbing trend to blame women. A recent episode of PBS’s “To the Contrary” on women’s economic disadvantages featured Gloria Feldt, author of “No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power,” who argued that the problem was with women who are complacent and not ambitious enough. There is undoubtedly some truth in this. I think about a friend who was describing her frustration at work because she is constantly being given menial work that is way beneath her skill level, while a man who is younger and in a junior position simply refuses to comply with those requests. I asked her why she doesn’t refuse as well, and she said that she is afraid of losing her job. It’s not lack of ambition that holds her back, but a real fear of financial instability that brings her to make decisions that are demeaning and aggravating, not to mention bad for her long-term development.
Another friend confided that she is very unhappy in her marriage but will never consider leaving because, as she put it, “I do not want to live in poverty.” Her husband is the main, though not the sole, breadwinner and she fears that she will never survive financially on her own. I think that some women are making some awkward choices about their lives not out of lack of ambition but out of a fear of financial instability.
I think it’s unfair to blame women for this. Career coaches and therapists admonish women to dream high and take risks, but also often blame women when bad things come their way. “We get what we attract”, is the new Secret-induced mantra for women. If we are stunted, clearly it’s our fault.
I know that this is true to a certain extent. I think about the myriad of ways we as women hold ourselves back because of the money fears. How many of us dare to even ask the question, what would our choices be if we had financial freedom? Would we do different work? Would we pursue dreams? Would we have the courage to fix some of our most difficult relationships? Or simply walk away from others?
But this line of thinking is also really harsh, and releases men as well as organizations from their responsibilities for perpetuating injustices.
We should not have to be so aggressive in demanding respect and fairness. It should be more taken for granted that women should be treated well. Moreover, there was a time in our cultural history when a reluctance to engage in shameless self-promotion was viewed as pious and integrous. Women’s preference for humility and hard work should be embraced and rewarded, not punished. That said, we women need to examine our own fears, avoiding the easy decisions that revert us to economic dependence and instead embrace courage risks. Sometimes the easy decisions are the very ones that keep us trapped.
Life is a lot of negotiation. My colleague Susan Weiss, founder of the Center for Women’s Justice and a great feminist thinker, says that all women are in negotiation with patriarchal structures. Few women if any are free from the system whose entire history is about holding women in place to protect men’s positions of power. We negotiate in different ways, in marriage, in work, and with money, picking and choosing places where we will fight for our own respect and independence and where we will accept the way things are. We do this all the time, every day.
Certainly women should be courageous enough to demand the respect that we deserve, to dare to dream about independence and strength, and to have the courage to make choices not out of fear of poverty, but out of a desire to live fully. But community structures and institutions should make all of that just a little bit easier for us. We should not have to struggle so hard for a paycheck that enables us to live with dignity.