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Charity Giant Vows To Fight Barriers Facing Female Leaders

In a rare public self-rebuke, United Jewish Communities this week released a study outlining barriers that have prevented women from gaining top leadership positions at Jewish charitable federations, and vowed to take steps to close the gap.

The study, conducted for UJC by the advocacy group Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, asserts that Jewish federations as a group lag behind secular foundations, universities and other not-for-profit institutions in the numbers of women in top executive posts. Based on statistical research and interviews with dozens of communal leaders, the study asserts that Jewish charities harbor many of the assumptions present in the larger society that hamper women’s advancement, including assumptions about differing natural abilities and women’s perceived commitments to family over career.

The interviews also point to a sharp division between the perceptions of women and men in federations, with women offering multiple examples of gender bias and men commonly denying that a problem exists. But authors of the study found that obstacles exist for women and that federations risk an “exodus” of talent, both female and male, because of an image as an institution rife with outmoded attitudes.

“We are taking a candid look at ourselves and identifying the obstacles that impede the growth of our most outstanding women professionals,” said the president and chief executive officer of UJC, Stephen Hoffman, in a statement accompanying the report. “We are committed to creating a sustained, multifaceted initiative that will bridge the gender gap and expand opportunities for women who want to advance in federations.”

UJC is a national organization representing 156 Jewish charitable federations in the United States and Canada with combined annual revenues of more than $2 billion.

According to the study, the 20 largest federations are all headed by men. Of the 19 federations in the next-largest category, known as “large-intermediate communities,” only three are headed by women.

By comparison, the study said, women head three of the eight Ivy League universities, 26% of the nation’s colleges overall and more than 50% of all philanthropic foundations. The advancement of women in secular institutions, the study said, is the result of “intentional endeavors” by organizations and businesses “to improve their competitive edge.”

The study also shows that within Jewish organizations, the proportion of employees who are female falls dramatically as job prestige increases. Women occupy 47% of sub-executive positions at large-intermediate federations, but only 16% of the executive positions. The report pointed to this trend as evidence of a “leaky pipeline,” reducing the number of talented women available for senior positions despite the substantial numbers in mid-level positions and below.

Interviews suggest that the obstacles faced by women in federations are impeding staff recruitment and hurting federations’ image among younger donors and activists. “A federation system dominated by older male donors and middle-aged male fundraising executives will appear less innovative, less inclusive and ultimately will be less appealing to the next generation,” the report said.

The study was conducted by a research team headed by Hebrew University sociologist Steven M. Cohen. It also included researchers from Brandeis University and senior UJC staffers.

The report recommended a series of steps to rectify the imbalance, including efforts to identify qualified women candidates, improve and diversify staff recruitment programs and promote greater “flexibility and work-life balance” in the larger federation work environment. The report specifically calls on UJC to set a goal of 50% women’s representation in its new Mandel Executive Development Program.

UJC said it had committed itself to increasing the number of females recruited for the Mandel program, but did not set a specific numerical goal. The Mandel program, funded by the private, Cleveland-based Mandel Foundation, works with Jewish organizations to train selected individuals for top posts. The last time the federation system participated in the Mandel program, nearly a decade ago, approximately 19% of the trainee group was female.

An “action plan” for implementing the broad findings of the women’s leadership study is to be drawn up by UJC’s National Advisory Committee on Professional and Volunteer Development, which will also formulate a plan for Mandel recruitment.

Advancing Women Professionals was launched in 2000, partly as an outgrowth of a 1994 study of women’s representation in Jewish organizations that was conducted by Ma’yan, a New York-based Jewish women’s advocacy center. UJC is one of several organizations that agreed to work with the group to improve recruitment of women leaders.

The new study attributes the problems facing women to a variety of factors, including an outdated perception of women as poor fundraisers, an “old boys” network of CEO recruiters and outright gender bias.

The study’s statistical and theoretical findings were backed up by face-to-face interviews with 93 leaders in 14 communities. The report includes this blunt quote from one unidentified male executive: “Having more men improves the atmosphere. People talk business.”

Others interviewed reported the exclusion of women fundraisers from meetings with high-level donors and the hiring of men for senior positions who were clearly less qualified than their female counterparts. One anonymous male federation lay leader told researchers: “But just because a man might look at a woman as a sexual object doesn’t mean that he’s not taking her seriously professionally…My advice to women is to be presentable and play to your femininity. Men want to preen and they will respond favorably to the right package.”

The founding president of Advancing Women Professionals, Shifra Bronznick, said similar problems exist throughout the Jewish communal world, not just at charitable federations. Referring to the study, she said women are disproportionately harmed by the forbidding work environment imposed on communal executives. Those on the CEO track, she said, must often eschew any flexibility in their work schedules and are harmed if they take a leave to rear young children. These conditions affect the retention of talented men as well as women, she said.

While Bronznick noted that Jewish organizations might rate better than corporations in some areas — just 12% of top corporate executives are women according to one study — she singled out the Jewish world for not “taking on any sustained efforts to advance women in a systematic way.” She noted that such efforts take time and called on UJC to demonstrate “what the power of a national system can be to effect change.”

Advancing Women Professionals recently completed two other pilot projects, aimed at increasing work-flexibility options at Hillel and the Jewish Board of Family and Children Services of New York. A third project, in cooperation with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, focuses on improving the search process for rabbis at Conservative synagogues in order to expand opportunities for qualified women rabbis.

UJC’s Hoffman offered one solution: “You make an effort not just to live with those who apply but go digging for those you want to encourage to apply,” he said. “Our system is full of women working in the field who are highly talented.” Asked what will happen to the project after he leaves his job this year, Hoffman said he has brought key people to UJC who will continue the effort, and he will do the same from his executive post at Cleveland’s federation.


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