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Where are the Women? (Again)

Last December, as we at the Forward were putting the finishing touches on our fourth annual salary survey of Jewish communal leadership, the Chronicle of Philanthropy asked me to write about why I have become so committed to reporting and writing about the gender imbalance in nonprofit leadership.

The short answer: Because it persists!

The longer answer is described in this essay which was published in print last month and was widely distributed online last week. In it, I explain how stunned I was when, in assuming my position at the Forward in 2008, I encountered only men running major Jewish organizations. So eager was I to meet other women leaders that I literally wrote notes to women I saw quoted in articles and asked to meet with them. (Some, happily, have become good friends.)

My personal query became a journalistic assignment: To find out who is running our communal organizations, men or women. And what do they earn?

As devoted readers know, our now-annual survey shows a persistent gap in the number of women leading the largest federations and educational, advocacy and religious institutions across the country, and a gap in what those women earn compared to men in leadership positions. This sorry situation extends from the legacy organizations that experience very little turnover to the newer progressive groups that have sprung up in the last couple of decades. And, of course, the federation system, where only one woman currently runs any of the 18 largest federations in the United States.

My hunch was that this information would be relevant beyond the Jewish world, but until my piece was published in the Chronicle, I didn’t really know. The response left me convinced.

“How can we expect to have the most committed people working to improve society through nonprofit organizations if we discriminate against at least one-half of the potential candidates, namely women?” Susan Gitleson, president of International Consultants, Inc. in New York, wrote in an email. (Her comments are also posted on the Chronicle website.)

“Since this situation has persisted for so long, just consider how many women in these groups have been so frustrated about promotion prospects that either they have gone elsewhere or they have become very resentful in their positions. What signals are we sending to the next generation of idealistic women about making careers in non-profit organizations?”

I also heard from Abby Leibman, president & CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. “I think that for me, one of the central concerns this lack of diversity raises is that I do believe that men and women not only lead differently, but also prioritize differently,” she wrote. “Not necessarily better (certainly no worse!) but just differently. As the first woman CEO of MAZON, I’m pretty mindful of this — we host a National Hunger Seder with JCPA (the Jewish Council on Public Affairs) every year and THIS year, the focus will be on the impact of hunger on women and their children in the U.S.”

I heard from other women, too, but they were reluctant to attach their names to their comments publicly. There still is a quiet fear that speaking out on this issue may endanger one’s career prospects.

That’s as strong a statement as I can make that the gender disparities and, at times, outright discrimination against women leaders in Jewish communal life is real and threatening to the success of our community. When is that going to change?

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