Sisterhood Blog

What Obama and Romney Left Out

By Elissa Strauss

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While everyone is up in arms about Romney’s “binders full of women” comment (which I found awkward, but ultimately inoffensive), they are overlooking the big issue that was left out of the debate on how to get rid inequality in the workplace. I am talking about maternity leave and affordable childcare.

Between Obama and Romney, they brought up pay discrimination, affirmative action for women (the “binders”), and flexible work schedules as ways to make workplaces more hospitable to women and rectify the fact that women earn 72 cents for every dollar men earn. They even talked about contraception and healthcare as having an effect on the income gap. But neither of them in their declarations of support for women in the workplace even hinted towards that pesky little issue of having and caring for children, which is one of the biggest handicaps for working gals.

Why is maternity and parental leave, or the lack of it, not part of the national conversation? It is not as though there are no consequences to the United States’ dismal support for new parents. I am getting sick of explaining this dismal support over and over again, but clearly it bears repeating.

Out of 178 industrialized countries in the world, the United States is one of three that does not guarantee paid maternal leave. The other two are Papa New Guinea and Swaziland. If you work for a company with 50 employees or more, you are guaranteed three months of unpaid leave. That is the best our country will do for you.

According to the National Association of Mothers’ Centers, in 2011 only 11% of private sector workers and 17% of public workers reported being offered paid leave by their employer. Considering that the majority of families are now dual-earner households, this is a real problem, not just for women but for the whole household.

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More Thoughts on Marissa Mayer's Choice

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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Marissa Mayer became a new mother on September 30th when her son, whose name has apparently not yet been chosen, was born. While Mayer’s labor has ended, discussion of what she means as a symbol of working motherhood has not.

It’s true that Mayer is one of just 20 women to be a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and “the only one to take the job while pregnant,” notes Lisa Miller in her profile of Mayer in the current issue of New York magazine. The day Yahoo announced Mayer’s hiring, in July, Mayer made public the fact that she was pregnant.

Mayer’s taking the post just two and a half months away from giving birth to her first child has made her perhaps the most-scrutinized working mother ever on the national stage.

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Why Marissa Mayer’s Choice Scares Me

By Sarah Seltzer

Like Elissa Strauss, I read the story about Marissa Mayer’s “soft” maternity leave with fascination and concern. I agree with Elissa that for many women, the ability to keep one hand in the work pot after the arrival of a child might be intellectually beneficial, good for morale and helpful for career prospects. I wish we as a society had more options available for part-time work for new parents and anyone caring for an ailing relative.

I also agree that this a choice that’s quite personal and different for every woman. But at the same time, I’m troubled by the policy implications that might come from Mayer’s choice. In these types of articles about the work-life decisions of the über-wealthy and über-busy, outlets like the Times do nowadays take the obligatory moment to acknowledge that they’re coming from a place of privilege. As the article states:

“Many women have no choice but to quickly return to work because they need the paycheck or can’t risk losing their job. And waitresses, nannies and teachers, for instance, can’t send e-mails from their iPhones and call it “working.”

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The Rise of the Soft Maternity Leave

By Elissa Strauss

First things first, it is none of your business, America, how long Yahoo’s new CEO Marissa Mayer plans to take off for maternity leave. (Mayer told Fortune that her leave would be “a few weeks long, and [she’ll] work throughout it.”) So enough with the opinion polls and endless commentating. Really, lay off.

Wikimedia Commons
Can’t parents sneak in a little work while the baby is sleeping?

Now that we cleared that up, it is worth pointing out how Mayer’s one-two news punch of her new job and pregnancy has prompted some interesting questions about maternity leave and what kind of obligation women — in general, not specifically Mayer — should feel to take it.

Indeed, paid maternity leave should be a choice for all women. And in all industrialized countries except the US it is — the US is joined by Papa New Guinea and Swaziland as one of the three countries in the world that does not offer paid leave. Go USA!

But whether or not paid leave should be an option is a separate question from whether women should feel obligated or pressured to take some, or all, of it. The New York Times wrote about women who pass on a strict maternity leave in this past weekend’s Style section.

“… for women at the top of their profession or running their own show, the decision to not take a traditional leave can feel like an empowering choice — and at the same time, not a choice at all.”

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When I Was Fired for Being Pregnant

By Renee Ghert-Zand

An op-ed piece in the Huffington Post by a 17-year-old Jewish high school student brought up some suppressed memories. This was not only because she wrote about the issue of paid maternity leave, but also the fact that she goes to a New York Jewish day school at which I once worked — and where I was treated badly because I asked for that benefit.

Emma Goldberg (the daughter of Forward senior columnist J.J. Goldberg and Advancing Women Professionals’ founding President Shifra Bronznick) wrote that she was surprised and worried to see her teacher at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School return to work only four weeks after having given birth. Apparently, the teacher, like many other women, could not afford to go without a salary for more than a month. Consequently, she spoke with the school’s administration about its maternity leave policy, did a lot of research on the topic, and wrote a strong piece calling for longer paid maternity leaves in all workplaces.

As much as it heartening to see a Jewish teenager so aware and so activist on this issue, it is also disheartening to see that nothing has changed in the close to 20 years since I was a young woman trying to concurrently build a career and a family. At least Goldberg, as a high school senior, is already aware of the uphill battle working mothers face and knows where she might be able to seek help or support when she herself reaches the point at which she needs to take maternity leave. In this regard, she is in a better place than I was when I was in my late 20s.

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Making Work More Humane, Balance More Feasible

By Sarah Seltzer

Ah, women and ambition. If I could untie this knot, I’d be on national tour with my bestselling self-help book.

Elissa, in this Sisterhood post, is right, of course, that the issues brought up by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg in her recent speeches, as vital as they ar, (and as much as I felt personally touched and invigorated by them), are missing a piece — that is, social and political will to improve women’s lives by making paid maternity leave mandatory, by passing anti-discrimination and sick leave measures that would allow women to charge ahead while also caring for kids, aging relatives, and ourselves without getting penalized. Added to this, of course, are the unspoken social rules which affect women’s psyches and the perception of our behavior — rules about when it’s acceptable to look out for oneself first, when it’s acceptable to value advancement over loyalty, when it’s acceptable to demand more of your family, your friends, your boss.

And the missing piece that I’m referring to is the same piece that’s been long absent in media coverage of women’s advancement in the workplace and the never-ending “mommy wars.”

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What Sheryl Sandberg's 'Lean In' Speech Left Out

By Elissa Strauss

Barnard College/Asiya Khaki
Sheryl Sandberg at Barnard commencement, 2011.

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s recent Barnard commencement address has become one of the most popular of the season. It has been linked to a quoted all over the Internet; the Forward excerpted it and so, too, did The New York Times. And right on.

Sandberg gave a no-nonsense, no apologies plea for feminine ambition. She reminded the class of 2011 that despite gains in education — she said that women have been 50% of college graduates since 1981 — men still run the world:

Of 190 heads of state, nine are women. Of all the parliaments around the world, 13% of those seats are held by women. Corporate America top jobs, 15% are women; numbers which have not moved at all in the past nine years. Nine years. Of full professors around the United States, only 24% are women.

Sandberg’s two main pieces of advice to remedy gender inequality are for women to “think big” and believe in themselves, and to not prematurely curtail our ambitions because of the work/life choices we might have to make down the line when we have children.

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The Devastating Toll of America's Lack of Paid Parental Leave

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

If you have a career, being a mother in this country costs you — in promotions and salary, and, because of a near total lack of legally mandated parental leave, in physical and emotional health as well. This is a well-known reality for every working mom I know, and now the international NGO Human Rights Watch has published a comprehensive look at the breadth and depth of the problem, and notes that it also has a negative impact on the economy.

The report, titled “Failing Its Families,” which can be read in its entirety here, says that the U.S. is one of just three countries in the world — alongside Papua New Guinea and Swaziland — that lack paid maternity leave.

The report continues:

The parents interviewed for this report recounted serious harms related to the meager policy supports for US working families. They described struggling with the lack of paid leave, and reported negative effects on their careers, on family finances, or on their children’s health. Many also confronted inflexible workplaces after leave, including with respect to requests for flexible hours or reduced schedules, and concerning pumping breast milk at work.

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Digest: National Survey on Agunot; New Ruling on Parental Leave

By Gabrielle Birkner

The Sisterhood Digest:

A group of Israeli women recently smuggled 12 Palestinian women and four children into Israel for a day of leisure. The women dined out in Jaffa and swam in the Mediterranean before the Palestinian women returned to the West Bank via Jerusalem. Among the excursion organizers was the Israeli writer Ilana Hammerman, who earlier this year wrote a magazine piece about another such gathering.


Barbara J. Zakheim, founder of the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse of Greater Washington is undertaking what is believed to be the first national survey of agunot, or women who, unable to obtain a Jewish divorce document, are stuck in unwanted marriages.


Haaretz introduces readers to Israeli psychologist Edna Foa — a pioneer of “Prolonged Exposure Therapy.” The technique is being used by the U.S. military on soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.


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Idea #25: Hold Jewish Leaders Accountable for Gender Equity

By Joanna Samuels

The Jewish community rightly holds its leaders responsible for managing complex organizational tasks. Yet when it comes to creating workplaces that routinely hire, advance and retain women in positions of authority and visibility, many leaders throw up their hands. So here’s a thought: Let’s all of us, leaders and constituents, stop acting like the advancement of women in Jewish communal life is impossibly complicated. If communal leaders follow these three easy steps, and all of the rest of us hold them accountable to committing themselves to concrete change, we will together improve Jewish organizations for women — and for men.

1. Leaders Should Conduct Internal Salary Audits

A 2004 study by Professor Steven M. Cohen and Judith Schor for the Rabbinical Assembly found that female rabbis earn $10,000 to $21,000 less than their male colleagues, even controlling for the size of congregation, the years of experience of the rabbi, and the hours worked per week. And a recent study, done by the Forward, found that female executives at Jewish organizations earn $0.61 for every dollar earned by their male colleagues. The lay and professional leaders of such organizations would be well advised to follow the lead of the Rabbinical Assembly:Conduct a comprehensive salary audit within your organization. Then publicize, rather than obfuscate, the result, and and begin to remedy any inequities uncovered. This might not be a particularly pleasant organizational exercise, but think about it this way: Do you really want to be the executive director or board chair who routinely underpays your female employees?

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Digest: Tots Doing Housework, The New Modesty

By Gabrielle Birkner

Sisterhood Digest:

• A group of religious Israeli women, many of whom live in West Bank settlements, are touting a new approach to raising children that has five-year-olds doing dishes and sweeping floors. “Based on the psychological theories of Alfred Adler and borrowing from traditional Jewish sources, [these women] aim to fight what they see as a worrisome trend in the Western world that is producing spoiled, maladjusted children who are unable to cope with the challenges of being adults,” The Jerusalem Post reports.

• As Sisterhood contributor Elana Sztokman recently wrote, juggling work and parenting is just the reality for most women. But the juggle seems to be harder on American working parents — regardless of income bracket — than on parents elsewhere in the developing world, according to a new study from the Center for American Progress. The study found that 90% of American mothers and 95% of American fathers report work-family conflict. What’s behind those numbers? Well, the researchers say that it’s because America lacks the family-friendly policies that other countries have adopted and formalized. “Only the United States lacks paid maternity-leave laws among the 30 industrialized democracies in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development,” the report states. “… Discrimination against workers with family responsibilities, illegal throughout Europe, is forbidden only indirectly here. Americans also lack paid sick days, limits on mandatory overtime, the right to request work-time flexibility without retaliation, and proportional wages for part-time work. All exist elsewhere in the developed world.”

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Asking for Maternity Leave and Childcare — Not for Permission

By Deborah Kolben

Okay, I’m jumping back in the ring. When I wrote recently about feeling like a bad feminist for wanting to stay home with my newborn daughter, I didn’t expect quite the response I got. Elana, while I do take issue with some of what you have to say, you’re spot on that women should stop asking for permission. In my post, I was seeking approval — mostly my mother’s, who granted it (thank you, Sisterhood, for letting us work out our mother-daughter issues). And while I understand your point that men and women need to share the parenting load, I don’t think anybody — man or woman — will be free to be parents until we have some real societal change.

I spent the past year living in Germany where parents (note: parents, not mothers) are offered 14 months of paid leave to care for their children. The policy was actually created to encourage fathers to take time off. If only the mother stays home she is offered a mere year. There are even father centers — havens where men can go hang out with their babies and chat with other men about soccer, parenting, and other dad things.

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Paid Maternity Leave Should be a Right, Not a Privilege

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Oh to be a working mother in Israel, where women who give birth will soon get 14 weeks of paid maternity leave. Fourteen weeks? I’d have been happy to get 14 days of paid leave in this country.

In Jane Eisner’s Forward editorial this week, she writes about Israel’s move to extend legally mandated maternity leave benefits. She also writes about the dismal reality among American Jewish organizations, as recently documented by Advancing Women Professionals.

In the editorial, Jane writes about Mechon Hadar, an egalitarian yeshiva on the Upper West Side whose chair, Ariela Dubler, made instituting paid parental leave a priority. I loudly applaud Hadar’s policy giving four weeks of paid maternity leave for each year of employment, up to 16 weeks.

If someone were to take four months of paid parental leave it would be a fiscal challenge for the small organization. This is an argument long used by businesses and not-for-profits to justify not providing paid parental leave, as it was in the early 1990s, when the federal Family and Medical Leave Act was being debated. Pregnant with my first child at the time, I clearly remember the debate – and the eloquent rhetoric in favor of FMLA from leaders of several Jewish organizations even as they had no family leave provision in their own company’s rules, which I documented in an article for JTA (which is unfortunately not available online).

But Ms. Dubler, a law professor at Columbia University, is quoted in the editorial as saying Mechon Hadar is “balancing generosity and risk.”

Therein lies part of the problem. Having a paid parental leave policy is viewed as “generosity,” as a gift, as something “extra,” or “over and above.”

It should not be.

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