Is my arriving late to a launch party for a book about work-life balance because I had to work late a valid example of situational irony?
Or is it just a sign that I should read the book in question, Leveling the Playing Field: Advancing Women in Jewish Organizational Life, very carefully?
The result of years of collective research and consulting work by Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community (AWP) and Cambridge Leadership Associates (CLA), Leveling the Playing Field is co-authored by AWP founder/president Shifra Bronznick, AWP consultant Didi Goldenhar, and CLA’s co-founder/principal Marty Linsky, and is meant to be a guidebook for those who “believe that gender equity is vital to the health of Jewish communities and want to turn [their] beliefs into productive action.”
Now it could just be that free mojito I drank at the launch party talking, but I think Leveling the Playing Field and its co-authors are on to something huge here.
The book — which is a surprisingly engaging read — and AWP’s mission operate under three self-proclaimed core assumptions:
1. Gender inequity is embedded in Jewish organizational life.
2. Gender equity is vital to the health of Jewish communal organizations.
3. Creating gender inequity will improve overall workplace effectiveness.
And I would add another:
4. You (yes, YOU), can create gender equity in your Jewish organization.
But, as the book makes clear, this is no easy task, and that’s why such a guidebook is necessary, to lay out for the prospective change-maker what the obstacles and pitfalls will be along the way, how to minimize personal risk and increase the likelihood of organizational success.
As to assumption #1, there’s ample evidence to support this claim (laid out in more detail in the book). Numerous studies in the last several years have found that, though women make up a large part of the Jewish organizational workforce, they hold only a tiny percentage of its top leadership positions, and earn salaries significantly less than their male counterparts. While gender inequities still abound in the general professional world, they are worse in the Jewish world, and Jewish organizations have been more reluctant to take on gender equity initiatives than many secular organizations have been.
Interestingly, many of the women who do hold positions of power in the Jewish organizational world — like Ruth Messinger, head of the American Jewish World Service, for example — have earned their chops outside of the Jewish world (in New York politics in Messinger’s case).
Which leads to assumptions #2 and #3. The book argues that because women are not being encouraged in the same way as men, their professional skills are not being developed properly — which means not only are these individual women losing out but so is the Jewish community, by not benefiting from their talents. Women are either languishing in mid-level positions in the Jewish organizational world or leaving the Jewish organizational world for better opportunities in the secular professional sector.
The book lays out several strategies and ideas for ways people on all levels of organizational life, from entry-level worker to major-donor, can increase gender equity in their organizations — from encouraging recruitment of women to increasing the flexibility of work schedules to accommodate the demands of family and other non-work life demands (which tend to be greater on women than on men, though both men and women benefit from such flexibility).
But gender inequity aside, here’s what gets me jazzed about Leveling the Playing Field. While as a guidebook it has a very specific purpose (advancing women professionals in the Jewish world, in case that wasn’t abundantly clear already), it’s also got tons of helpful advice that women — and men, too — can use in their professional lives in general, like, for example, “Ask for what you want and need.” Seems obvious, but how many of us wait around hoping for someone to make us an offer so we won’t have to ask?
In addition to practical advice on what to do, the book guides the reader in how to think about organizational life — how to approach the workplace strategically, how to effect change (hallelujah for the lightbulb-on moment of realizing that one can effect change instead of simply being a slave to the demands of the status quo), and how to get what you want, on an organizational and an individual level.
Because at the end of the day, it’s not about women so much as it’s about giving everyone a fair shot at the top and nurturing talent wherever it’s found so that everyone benefits. Years of inequitable systems have made this harder to accomplish than just saying the words, even with conviction, would make it seem. But the more people are aware of these inequities and the forces behind them, the more likely they will be to push for change, and the more willing they will be to adapt to new modes of working and thinking. Or so one hopes.
It’s unlikely that everyone who reads Leveling the Playing Field will take on a full-on gender equity fight in their workplace, but they may be more likely to ask for that raise, demand day care, or even recommend that bright young woman in the development office for a promotion. Ultimately, each small victory and sympathetic colleague adds up and makes the big gender equity fight easier if and when it comes.
–Rebecca Honig Friedman