I was surprised and saddened by Livia Levine’s recent article in the Sisterhood, “Can Haredi Women Learn to Lean In.” It is disappointing and disheartening that Haredi women in Israeli don’t see themselves as competent enough to be managers and surprising that they viewed being a manager as a male role, considering that many Haredi men aren’t in the workforce at all. Levine concludes that Haredi women Israeli are not capable of leaning-in. What about Haredi or right-wing Orthodox women in America. Are they leaning in?
The answer is yes and no.
In my fifteen years of working in Orthodox women’ higher education in America, I haven’t encountered that same negative attitude among American Haredi women about their own capabilities that Levine found in Israel. On the contrary, I do see a growing number of Orthodox women in America “leaning in.” In mainly mid-size or small businesses, especially those geared towards the Orthodox community, women are achieving impressive levels of success. The growth of the Jewish Woman Entrepreneur, a non-profit organization that provides support, networking, education and mentoring to (mostly Orthodox) Jewish women in business, is testament to this rise. It has a network of over 1,200 women, some of whom are presiding over multi-million dollar companies.
The idea of Orthodox women occupying important professional positions is becoming more and more mainstream. In women’s magazines that cater to the right-wing Orthodox and Hasidic populations (such as “Mishpacha Family First” and “Ami Living”) articles profiling successful Orthodox women in business and on work-family balance have become commonplace. However, American Orthodox women aren’t reaching CEO level positions in great numbers. Not because they don’t believe themselves competent, but because they are not aspiring, or being encouraged to aspire for these positions. The Haredi Orthodox community is vehemently opposed to the feminist movement, believing it synonymous with women prioritizing their careers to the detriment of their families. To counteract the perceived threats to family life, Orthodox girls’ educators place great stress on the importance of prioritizing family life and choosing a career path that is consonant with being a mother. As a result, Orthodox women do generally prioritize their families and choose family-friendly career tracks, which is a legitimate and commendable choice (a choice that arguably most women make). However, some Orthodox women are reluctant to pursue opportunities that could actually be very doable for a working mother because they are conditioned to think small. These women may only be exposed to limited professional options and choices, and would likely not even know what it means to “lean in.”
Similarly, while some Orthodox women choose a career they love, others choose a job track they view as practical in terms of earning potential and family friendly hours, without considering if they actually enjoy that line of work or are a good fit. Since they have been told that their families should be their primary source of fulfillment, these women believe that it doesn’t matter if they like their work. I oftentimes encounter students who believe that whether or not they will enjoy their jobs is irrelevant because it is “just a job.” This is an erroneous approach that could lead to feelings of unfulfillment, low self-esteem, and general misery. It damages a woman’s chances of success in the professional world and family life.
Certainly, Orthodox women are doing what Sheryl Sandberg calls, “leaving before they leave”; the phenomenon of women turning down opportunities because they are thinking about starting a family in the future, even though they are not doing so imminently. Young, single Orthodox women opt out of good opportunities because they are hoping to get married and start a family soon, even though they’re not even dating anyone at the moment, and it could be years before they have children. A student of mine turned down a prestigious graduate program because she feared that maybe in the course of the program, she would get married to a man living in another city and would have to move.
Levine presented her students with the low percentages of women in CEO positions. If we’re defining “leaning in” as aspiring for Fortune 500 CEO positions, then perhaps the answer to our question about American Orthodox women leaning in is no. The reality is that being the CEO of a Fortune 500 company is a lofty goal that is improbable for most Orthodox women, or Orthodox men for that matter. It requires a level of dedication, in sheer number of hours, that is not consonant with an Orthodox lifestyle, both in terms of the emphasis on family and the time obligations of Shabbat and holidays (This relates to the global debate of can women “have it all”).
That said, there are many role models for Orthodox women who are achieving success in the professional world and in family life. This will likely become more and more commonplace in the coming years. What remains to be seen is if and how the growth of Orthodox women in leadership positions in the professional world will impact the structure of Orthodox communal life.
Dr. Leslie Ginsparg Klein is a writer and educator. She teaches Jewish history and education to undergraduate and graduate students and lectures internationally.