Sexism keeping women from top of federations, report finds

new york | Sexism pervades the North American Jewish federation system, a new report says.

An “old-boys’ network” and an attitude that rejects women’s leadership skills have kept women from reaching the top echelons of the federation system, according to research released recently by the United Jewish Communities and a group called Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community.

The study, based on interviews with a cross-section of North American federation leaders from January to September 2003, sought to understand why women have not reached top executive spots in the largest 20 Jewish communities in North America.

Some of those quoted in the report seem to reflect sexist attitudes.

“Just because a man might look at a woman as a sexual object doesn’t mean that he’s not taking her seriously professionally,” said one male lay leader interviewed in the report. “I mean, does every woman have to be Golda Meir? My advice to women is to be presentable and play to your femininity,” he said. “Men want to preen, and they will respond favorably to the right package.”

In its recommendations, the report advised the system to groom a significant number of low- and mid-level female staff members for senior positions, and create flexible work environments that make it easier to balance career and family.

The report recommends experimenting with new models to promote gender equity, monitoring progress through data collection and integrating women’s initiatives into federations’ executive development programs.

“The issue is complex and subtle,” says S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation interim CEO Phyllis Cook, who was interviewed for the study. “It is not black and white. There are no women at the top of any federation in America. So the issue is: Can a women be at the top?”

UJC, the umbrella group for North American Jewish federations, paid for and commissioned the report at the request of Stephen Hoffman, the group’s president and CEO.

Federation leaders and observers applauded the report, which they called the federation system’s most comprehensive attempt yet to investigate and rectify sex discrimination.

“The first sign of a readiness to change is a willingness to take an honest look at yourself,” said Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Foundation and a former executive of the UJA-Federation of New York.

Added Cook, “This study showed that a reasonable percentage of high quality women aspire to top leadership. It’s only a matter of time.”