As a woman who has served for many years in professional roles in the Jewish world, as well as having been a lay leader and board chair of a Jewish day school, I approach the topic of gender equity and respect from a perspective of experience and optimism.
Experience has proven to me that perhaps the single greatest factor contributing to an organization’s success is the strength of the relationship between the top lay and professional leaders. I have called this relationship a “sacred partnership,” one that enables communal work to be sanctified and elevated as both partners recognize they are engaged in the holy work of building a stronger Jewish world. Gender is an undeniable factor in the nature of that relationship, but it doesn’t have to be an obstacle. In fact, the recent report from the Leading Edge organization on the gender gap in Jewish nonprofit leadership includes examples of actions taken by organizations to create gender equity in the field.
My optimistic perspective comes from a firm belief that intentional behavior and attitudes on the part of senior leaders can influence the whole of an organization. I have witnessed a growing number of examples of women playing significant roles on boards and as professionals that break traditional gender stereotypes and assumed skill sets. From a leadership perspective, gender is only one factor among many that contribute to the dynamic relationship, and there are clear, intentional approaches that leaders can take to create a more equitable environment.
I believe in three intentional approaches that contribute to stronger partnerships and that are especially helpful to promote gender equity and respect. I illustrate each of these approaches below with personal reflections and observations.
1. Self-awareness: Everyone has some skill sets that come naturally and some that can be improved with effort. When leaders are aware of, and transparent about, their own areas of strength and where they need to develop skills, they can invest in areas of learning. Trust defines an effective lay-professional relationship, as well as a shared vision and clear role expectations. In order to grow, each partner should be committed to understanding and respecting the other, sharing and receiving helpful feedback, creating a safe space for exploring personal and professional growth opportunities to advance the vision and goals of the organization together as a team. This can go far to eliminate perceived gender-based strengths and challenges.
As I have grown in both my professional leadership roles and also as a lay leader, I recognized that I had to build my skills around financial management. I did not need to know everything, but I had to develop some literacy and then trust those around me who were more skilled. On the other side of the relationship, one lay leader with whom I worked for many years as a professional was seen as a great relationship builder, creative program planner and terrific at event management. To facilitate her leadership growth, we intentionally worked on how she could grow as a strategic and visionary leader. She had much to contribute, but often her voice was not sought out in this way. This is an area of challenge for many women as leaders, and it can only be changed through awareness and intentional growth.
2. Contracting process: As in many relationships, a contract can be used as a means of setting agreed-upon parameters in order to establish clear shared expectations. A contract between a professional and a lay leader might include identifying the responsibilities and decisions that are professionally led and those that are decisions to be made by the board chair and the board. Other areas outlined in the agreement could include preferred methods of communication (email, phone or text), establishing regularly scheduled check-ins and defining boundaries for personal time.
One of the beautiful aspects of the Jewish world, and one that is discussed as both a benefit and a challenge of Jewish communal work in Prizmah’s report on board leadership, “Unlocking Leadership,” is the way personal and professional lives are often intertwined. As an individual, I may be a participant at a Jewish communal event alongside lay leaders from the organization at which I serve as a senior professional. Having agreed upon times that are “no business talk” situations will help everyone navigate these sometimes-challenging boundaries and enable a more trusting relationship.
3. Modeling mindset: We often hear about how leaders are meant to set an example of good behavior. Attitudes toward gender equity and respect are conveyed in all sorts of ways that have been documented – who sets up and cleans up a room, who takes notes, etc. It is easy to default to gendered expectations, but it can also be easy to break those patterns and model more balanced and respectful dynamics.
Early in my career, I was at work late one night putting together packets of material for an event, and the male CEO, with his coat on heading out the door, stopped to ask what I was doing and sat down to help me get the job done. I still remember him many years later and try to emulate that kind of practice, knowing that as a C-suite professional, I am observed by my organization’s employees and have the responsibility to set a positive example. When leaders recognize that their influence extends deeply within and beyond their organization, they can contribute to changing stereotypes.
Being intentional as a leader means holding ourselves accountable for the outcomes we wish to see, both for our organizations externally and for our leaders internally (this is the first “keystone” addressed in Leading Edge’s report). Board chairs and lead professionals together have the opportunity and obligation to adapt these practices to be more intentional, especially as we continue to break gender norms. As a result, their relationship will be more stable, their impact on their organization that much more lasting, and the Jewish communal world will continue to advance the way we handle issues of gender equity, allowing both leaders and organizations to thrive and succeed.
The writer is chief operating officer at Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.