When I heard that Leveling the Playing Field: Advancing Women in Jewish Organizational Life by Shifra Bronznick, Didi Goldenhar, Marty Linsky, and Beverly Joel (who did layout and design for the book) was out, I knew I’d want to get at least an excerpt for readers.

While my experience in Jewish communal life is more so in the Jewish social justice organizational world, I have to say that the issue of women’s leadership is just as pressing there, as it is in the Jewish mainstream organizational world.

From the op-ed on April 1, 2008:

With the exception of some local agencies, Jewish women’s groups and a sprinkling of general organizations, including the American Jewish World Service, the Foundation for Jewish Culture and the Israel Project, every national Jewish organization and every religious institution is directed by a man.

The difference: in the Jewish “professional” world, women are working in a more business-like corporate organizational model. As such, diplomacy rules, and one has to be beyond careful about what one says, how one says it, when they choose to say it, and more often than not, to raise such issues “only holds one back.” (Note that one of the suggestions below is on timing, and how much again, this models a very corporate idea of when and how one is or is not supposed to speak, and then if it is and is not ok and, and, and–lord the whole thing just makes my anxiety go up every time I think about it. While I’ve learned quite a bit about diplomacy over the last few years, and see the value of having tools to talk with people across gulfing divides of difference, I must admit, we are often treading on a dangerous line in which more often than not people’s voices are silenced and erased, rather than to truly fostering intellectual and engaging conversations and debates.)

In the Jewish social justice world, the issue is supposedly mute, a non-issue, a “no we’re OK and progressive and this isn’t an issue,” world. To raise it becomes the cat and mouse game of, “are you saying I’m sexist, I’m not sexist!”–the focus on the individual behavior rather than the larger culture we live in that perpetuates the cycles we’ve grown to know so well. Yet, if we look at Jewish social justice organizations, again, most are run by men. So in essence, again, we’re faced with the dynamic where when people raise that this is a reality, they’re often held back.

While I’m sure there are more scenarios than just these two, these are the two I’m most familiar with, and I don’t think they are mutually exclusive.

I’ve watched many women in my life negotiate to the point of not only often feeling alone if they are able to make it in running organizations, but often internalizing the pressure placed upon them to the point where their friendships with other women are strained, and their behavior evaluated to the point where people are turning on each other, saying things like, “well their priorities are more “like men” because they don’t have kids”–and the list goes on and on. Gotta love oppression, right! (Yes, sarcasm, again.)

This is still very much a narrow place for our community, the question and concern for how we, not just talk about equity, but change our organization life where women’s leadership is not just talked about, but lived, breathed and valued as an integral part of our communal and organizational life.

This new guide gives us, not just analysis, but tools–concrete steps to changing an environment that so many I know ARE very much invested in changing. As tools go, some are useful for some situations, and others do not apply. The point is to take those that work, and really truly make them work.

So, I give you an excerpt from the publisher (shout out to Crystal!) below.

Personally, I think the last two suggestions of giving credit where credit is due, and injecting more women’s voices into the public terrain through op-eds and so forth, are more where my generation still needs to improve, but I’d be interested to hear what others have to say on this.
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Four Ways to Make Women’s Voices Heard

The following scenario from a Jewish organization may sound familiar. Women volunteer leaders were troubled by a frustrating situation. On the one hand, they had increased the number of women holding leadership positions on the board. On the other hand, their ideas and voices were absent from the major discussions and deliberations of their organization. Why hadn’t the presence of more women on the board altered their experience at these meetings?

The women realized that to have greater impact, they would need to change their behaviors, individually and collectively. Here are a few ideas that have helped these women, and others, make their voices heard:

Step Up to the Mike

These women were loathe to rush up to the microphone at large meetings or be the first to speak in board discussions. By contrast, their male colleagues lost no time in making their opinions known. Each woman vowed to speak publicly at the next opportunity. The first time led to a second time and then a third, and the women made a habit of reminding each other to step up to the mike. Over time the cumulative effect was the inclusion of more women’s perspectives in discussions and meetings.

Timing is Everything

A Jewish female president of a major university was asked about her strategies for navigating an environment dominated by male academics and trustees. She responded, “I am neither pushy nor loud. But my timing is impeccable, and I know just when to speak up and make an idea resonate for a group.”

Timing is a critical skill. When someone wants to have an impact in a meeting, she will focus not only on what she wants to say, but on when to speak. Often an idea needs to circulate several times before it can be absorbed and accepted.

Give Credit Where Credit is Due

Many women feel frustrated when their ideas are credited to others. They may be angry about being ignored but feel awkward about reclaiming the authorship of important ideas and recommendations.

A Jewish foundation executive offers a practical approach for changing this dynamic. “You can’t take the credit back for yourself. But you can get the credit for another woman in the room. If Barbara is the originator of an idea, but Jim is getting the credit, Sheila can say, “That’s a great idea for launching the campaign. I was impressed when Barbara suggested it originally. I’m glad that Jim reiterated it and I, too, want to express my support for Barbara’s terrific concept.”

If enough women start responding in this way, the power dynamics of these groups will shift markedly, with a more level playing field created for women’s ideas.

Weigh in on the Issues

Women succeed by exceeding expectations; the accepted wisdom is that women need to be twice as good as their male counterparts to neutralize the negative impact of bias. A single-minded drive to succeed may help women advance in their own organizations, but this narrow focus can also be limiting. To exert greater influence on the communal agenda, women need to use their expertise and status as a public platform, whether they write about Israel on the op-ed page of the New York Times or play a major role in AIPAC or the American Jewish World Service. There’s a lot to be gained from becoming a Jewish affairs pundit.

Equally important is to circulate a list of other women who are qualified to weigh in on the issues. The next time you hear, “Of course, we’d be happy to have a woman speak, but we don’t know any woman who knows about…,” fill in the blank.

Excerpted from “Leveling the Playing Field” pp 70-71