Struggling? Juggling? Trying to Integrate our Multiple Roles

Lilith/American Jewish Committee special report 

Is the Jewish woman lawyer involved in a bankruptcy case in Cleveland any different from her WASP female colleague in how she balances her personal and professional life? What about Jewish women who are psychotherapists, bankers or in business for themselves? Do they turn to Jewish institutions for support? In what ways has being Jewish and female helped them or harmed them?

“Jewish Women on the Way Up,” a new study commissioned by LILITH Magazine and the American Jewish Committee, documents for the first time that Jewish women are, indeed, different from most non-Jewish career women in combining marriage and childbearing along with their careers.

This is in contrast to general surveys of executive women, where many are single, divorced or childless; the pattern is one of avoidance of role conflicts by not attempting to combine career, marriage and children.

The Lilith-AJC study corroborated an earlier finding that Jewish career women, like their non-working counterparts, are likely to marry in their early 20s and have as many or more children as Jewish women not currently working outside the home for pay. Two-thirds of the survey respondents wanted to have two or three children. Only 16 percent didn’t plan to have children, higher than in the past for Jewish women but lower than for the general population.

According to the study’s director, Dr. Rela Geffen Monson, acting dean for academic affairs and professor of sociology at Gratz College in Philadelphia PA, the most surprising finding was how alienated most women felt from the organized Jewish community. This was especially unexpected since most of the women responding to the questionnaire were involved with Jewish institutions. Nearly all felt positive about their Jewish identities, but half of the 944 respondents thought the community was neutral at best, and one third considered it unsupportive.

Monson says that this finding should send up a red-flag alert to community institutions if they place any value on their pool of talent and leadership for the future. One respondent said: “I sense a paternalistic attitude from Jewish charities — the established ones. They want my money then assume I’m male since I’m able to give, and don’t use the money to help women in particular . I’m angry because I feel excluded from the profile of the Jewish community.”

Monson, who has combined her own career with a 23-year marriage and the rearing of two teen-age sons, emphasized the preliminary nature of the research, which is the first on the subject.

The study was based on response to a four-page questionnaire that appeared in LILITH Magazine in 1985, and was then distributed to Jewish career women through the business and professional women’s groups of Jewish Federations and the regional offices of the American Jewish Committee.

The questionnaire responses reflected the fact that Jews are the most highly educated group in the United States and that Jewish career women are as highly educated as Jewish men. Ninety percent of the respondents had at least some college education and 60 percent had completed graduate school. Their incomes were also at the top of the scale. While approximately one-third of the respondents with children worked part-time, of the respondents working over 40 hours per week, three-fourths earned over $25,000 and 19 percent earned over $65,000. This is in sharp contrast to the national average reported in 1985 by “The Working Woman Report”. According to the report, 60 percent of employed American women earned under $10,000 in 1982. Only five percent earned over $25,000.

About one-third of the women were currently single (never married, divorced or widowed) and two-thirds married. Of the respondents with children, about one-third returned to work within a year after the birth of their first child. The majority opted for private child care in their own homes after the first child’s birth, though we don’t know what other forms of child care were available to them.

The responses to the study indicated that Jewish women’s preferred career path is completion of higher education, followed by entry into the work force, combined with marriage, children and continued employment. This was termed a “juggling”, as opposed to a “staggering” pattern. A woman might move to part-time employment until her children entered nursery school, but this in no way altered her sense of her career trajectory.

About three-fourths of the married respondents rated their husbands as very supportive, another 15 percent as somewhat supportive. But Monson concluded from respondents’ comments that “it was the responsibility of the woman to find the solution to the dilemma she was perceived as having created by changing the traditional structure. In fact, the organized Jewish community is mentioned as a potential or actual part of the solution far more often than any family members.” Jewish day schools proved attractive to Jewish career women for their children because of the schools’ long hours and the freeing up of Sunday for family time.

The unmarried women responding to the study were the most negative in their evaluations of the organized Jewish community. Their views also reinforced negative stereotypes of Jewish men, although of the women who had never been married, 65 percent considered marriage important or essential, preferably to a Jewish man. Forty-four percent of those who had previously been married considered it nice but not necessary to remarry.

Monson found: “For many of these women who want desperately to marry, the shortage of Jewish men and the perceived lack of community support lead to bitter conclusions.”

One respondent wrote: “I feel less certain with each passing day that continued commitment to old Jewish dating mores makes sense. I find no support system in the Jewish community — merely demands on my time and money and energy.”

Jewish men were perceived as more successful, more self-absorbed, more intellectual but also more prone to make good fathers than non-Jewish men. At the same time, non-Jewish men were seen as equally caring but far more “macho” and “sexy”.

Monson found that the more Jewish friends a respondent had, the more likely she was to be critical of non-Jewish men and to consider Jewish men sexy. Also, divorced Jewish women were harder on Jewish men than those who had never married. The more identified as a feminist the respondent was, the more likely she was to say that both Jewish and non-Jewish men are self-absorbed.

Both married and non-married women were in agreement in considering their being Jewish less of a barrier to career advancement than being female. Fifty-three percent said that being Jewish had no effect on their careers, while 38 percent considered being a woman a negative factor in their careers.

Respondents were very clear in their priorities regarding support from the Jewish community. Married respondents wanted day care, transportation to religious school, family support groups and stress workshops. Single women wanted singles events and help in finding Jewish mates.

Speaking at a December press conference announcing the study’s findings, Irving M. Levine, director of the American Jewish Committee’s National Affairs Department, as well as a member of a dual career family, suggested that the very success of Jewish career women leads Jewish men to respond negatively when confronted with complaints about Jewish institutions.

“Ten more years could go by without change” Levine said. “You’ll get support, not leadership, from sensitive Jewish men.” In fact, he felt that Jewish values concerning success influenced Jewish career women to make private arrangements for services such as child care, instead of feeling these institutions had an obligation to help them.

Monson is looking forward to more research including studies of husbands and children in dual career families. She considers the paradigm for future definitions of “success” not just career success but family success as well.

One possibility considering that the women responding to the study are among the most highly educated and financially successful of American career women, is that the expectations of all career women are changing. Rather than being different from other professional women, Jewish women may be in the forefront of a trend, where women no longer feel compelled to choose between career or family but expect to combine the two.

For a copy of the study “Jewish Women on the Way Up” write to:

Morton Yarmon

American Jewish Committee
165 E. 56th Street
New York NY 10022

Amy Stone is a founder and former Senior Editor of LILITH.