Sisterhood Blog

How to Hire More Female Federation Leaders

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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Journalist Haviv Rettig Gur recently noted in ejewishphilanthropy.com that just two of the 19 largest Jewish federations in North America are headed by women.

This is worth highlighting, particularly as the Jewish Federation of North America’s General Assembly gets down to business today in Baltimore (it runs through November 13). The presently dismal rate of hiring women at the top of large Jewish federations “paint[s] a picture of an institution out of touch with some of the key trends in today’s Jewish world,” Rettig Gur writes.

The issue in the organized Jewish world is not limited to federations, of course. In the most recent of its annual surveys of compensation in 76 national Jewish organizations, The Forward found “a picture of communal stagnation in gender equality, as the number of women in leadership roles remains at the same low level, and the gap between male and female salaries has grown even larger.”

That there are even two women heading the largest federations is a recent development. San Francisco’s federation appointed the first woman to head one of the “big 19” in 2010, and Montreal’s hired a woman at its helm last year.

To be sure, 48 out of North America’s 155 federations are run by women, though “the percentage drops precipitously when it comes to the large federations which raise and manage the lion’s share of the federation world’s funds,” he notes.

There are indicators, however incremental, that things are changing for the better. The JFNA and UJA-Federation of New York have adopted parental leave (paid or not is unclear in Rettig Gur’s piece, though it is a salient question) and now permit flexible work arrangements, two factors which will likely make it easier to attract and retain women to management positions.

And visibility for women in the federation system has grown, if the fact that about 40% of speakers and panelists at the current GA are women is any indication.

Through its campaign to make leaders more aware of the dearth of women invited to participate in panel discussions, the organization Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community has created a shift. Central to that initiative has been getting men on board by having key male allies decline invitations to speak until there are women on the panel.

The same thing has to happen on the larger issue of women at the helm of the largest federations and other Jewish organizations. Until men — male board members and professional staff — demonstrate a commitment to making change, nothing will markedly improve.

Much is at stake. As Rettig Gur wrote, “At the end of the day, whether federations can enable women to become leaders will speak volumes about their viability as institutions in the coming years.”


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