Cracking The Glass Ceiling


In today’s America, a woman can battle her way through a presidential campaign, but she will still find it difficult to reach the top of most Jewish organizations.

Women may dominate the Jewish communal workplace in numbers but, stifled by a glass ceiling, they rarely become leaders, according to Shifra Bronznick, co-author of a just-published guidebook called “Leveling the Playing Field” (Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community and Cambridge Leadership Associates).

Bronznick, an organizational consultant on social change, is the founder and president of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, a non-for-profit organization. Through both the book and her own efforts as a consultant, she hopes to bring equality to women in the Jewish workplace and smooth their transitions into leadership positions.

“I’m convinced that the advancement of women is inextricably linked to our community,” Bronznick said. “I am also very struck by the fact that in the Jewish community we seem to have lagged behind other fields.”

In today’s secular industries, she explained, corporations like Deloitte & Touche and Ernst & Young have implemented special initiatives for bringing women into leadership — and she aims to help Jewish organizations do the same.

Bronznick began her career working for not-for-profit organizations, such as the Fresh Air Fund for inner-city children and the Imagination Workshop, an arts program for psychiatric patients. From 1987 through 1997, she managed real estate operations for the Weiler-Arnow family and worked with Robert Arnow, chair of the board of governors of the then struggling Ben-Gurion University. Soon after, she launched her consulting practice, aiming to navigate and fuel social change.

Bronznick has been involved in women’s issues since her childhood. In the fourth grade, for example, she announced to her Ramaz classmates that she was going to be the first female president of the United States. While she hasn’t yet fulfilled that dream, she did become the first woman to chair the North American Jewish Students Network in 1974, and she was the sole female representative to the World Union of Jewish Students. From her work in these groups, Bronznick learned that women are not easily accepted as intellectual and political leaders within the Jewish community.

“We sometimes allow a family-like atmosphere to pervade our organizations, rather than creating meritocracies with standards of professional excellence and robust professional development programs,” Bronznick said. “Unlike most other fields, we’ve invested nothing in the advancement of women.” Taking on that responsibility, Advancing Women Professionals is launching a campaign to have 100 Jewish groups improve their policies towards women by 2010.

She and her colleagues initiate change by helping organizations set — and meet — realistic goals for bringing more women into leadership positions. To Bronznick, the first step is to dispel the myth that women don’t want to perform what has traditionally been considered men’s work. Due to this flawed assumption, Jewish groups will often automatically appoint a man for an executive position, she said.

“There is almost this hysteria that if you don’t keep the positions for men then they’ll all flee,” Bronznick said.

Bronznick’s strategies have already begun to change the culture of certain Jewish organizations. As a consultant for Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, she helped integrate women into the seminary’s administration. Female board members soon jumped from seven out of 55 in 2001 to 21 out of 55 in 2005, and a woman — Barbara Friedman — currently serves as chair.

“Shifra’s insights about the ways in which women could enrich our organization through their leadership is something to which I gave great credence.” said Rabbi David Ellenson, president of HUC.

Although Bronznick sees gender inequity as a severe problem within the Jewish world, she hardly finds secular America immune to such problems. The release of “Leveling the Playing Field” is perfectly timed for the current election, in which Sen. Hillary Clinton faces many difficulties, she said.

While Bronznick doesn’t endorse any candidate, she noted that when men bring change they are often admired, while women who do the same typically remain invisible or belittled.

“There’s a very narrow band in which women can lead — if they lead like men they’re considered too tough,” Bronznick said, adding that emotional expression is generally correlated with weakness.

In addition to women’s issues, Bronznick recognizes inequities elsewhere in the Jewish community, citing setbacks endured by younger people; lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-gendered Jews; and Jews of color.

“In the Jewish community, there’s a lack of a sort of imagination about how to create welcoming environments”.