Op-Ed: More women are needed as leaders


NEW YORK (JTA) — Pride and chagrin: It’s rare that the two emotions are experienced simultaneously. But that is how we are feeling at Hadassah.

We feel pride because women now hold three of our top professional positions: Janice Weinman is our new executive director and CEO; Osnat Levtzion-Korach is the new director-general of Hadassah University Hospital-Mount Scopus in Israel; and Rabbi Ellen Flax is executive director of the $10 million Hadassah Foundation. And for the first time a woman, Esther Dominissini, chairs the board of the Hadassah Medical Organization in Israel, an influential role in Israeli hospital management.

Of course, as a national women’s organization, our national presidents all have been women, our legal counsel is a woman, our Israeli office is headed by a woman, and female doctors head numerous departments at both of Hadassah’s hospital campuses. On Capitol Hill and in Israel, Hadassah continues to advocate strongly for women.

Yet despite Hadassah’s strong focus on women and the many of us who serve in high-level leadership positions, we also feel chagrin because 100 years after our founding, it remains all too unusual for women to hold top professional positions in any organization. 

We want to set the model, not to be the outlier. Salary-based and hiring discrimination against women in the workplace are still an issue, but there is another dynamic at play. The desire for a “work-life balance” we hear so often about of late demonstrates just how complicated it can be for women to take time away from their families to work — or away from their jobs to raise their children.

Women comprise 51 percent of the population, yet more than nine decades after we received the vote, and nearly five decades after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, we still lag in leadership.

Just 17 women hold seats in the U.S. Senate and 73 in the House of Representatives. Only six states have women as governors. The U.S. Conference of Mayors reports that of the 1,248 cities with populations exceeding 30,000, just 217 have female mayors. The Fortune 1000 list includes just 39 women as CEOs.

Things are no better in the Jewish world, where only two of the 20 largest Jewish federations have women at the helm. The Forward newspaper’s most recent salary survey shows that women head just nine of 76 national Jewish organizations. A number of women have chaired their local federations and, finally, a great woman now leads the umbrella organization for the federations. But on the top staff level, it’s just not the same.

We need women in every kind of leadership role, and even though many women have risen through the ranks in recent years, we are nowhere near where we should be. This is not to disparage the many excellent men who hold leadership positions in our Jewish and national life, but we take special pride when we see women in those roles.

More important, we know that women often bring a different voice to the public square. It was, for example, only when women brought so-called women’s issues to the workplace — increased maternity leave, for example — that men, too, rightfully demanded paternity leave.

Women care about foreign policy, but we also want to help those in poverty in our own country. Women care that the United States has a strong military, but we also strive to ensure that health care and education top priority lists.

Research has demonstrated that gender diversity matters. A 2007 McKinsey study found that “companies with three or more women in senior management functions score more highly on average (on nine dimensions of company excellence).” These criteria include accountability and innovation. A 19-year study for the European Project on Equal Pay, conducted by Roy Adler of Pepperdine University in the 1980s and ’90s, found a strong correlation between profitability and the number of women in executive positions.

A 2011 study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers found that “if a group includes more women, its collective intelligence rises.”

We’ve certainly seen that happen on our nonprofit boards, but we can’t be truly effective until women hold more of our professional leadership positions.

For years, women have had to buck a paternalistic society, particularly in the Jewish world. Yet we can’t solely blame society for the low numbers of women in leadership positions. We have to hold ourselves accountable as well. 

Too often we’ve been content to sit back and let the men lead. We have been quiet at board meetings and allowed the baritone voices of our male colleagues to overtake our own. 

If we want change, we must be its catalysts. We must demand that search committees try harder to find — and recruit — women to fill top jobs. We must encourage women to run for office. We must insist that our nonprofit boards pay closer attention to the makeup of professional staff — not just how many men and women are employed, but also the numbers of women in management and how their earnings compare with their male counterparts.

If this sounds like affirmative action, or something that might have been written 30 years ago, so be it.

It is only when it is no longer novel to point to the first woman in a given position — or even the second or third — that we will have begun to achieve equality.

(Marcie Natan is national president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.)

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