Why the gender pay gap at Jewish nonprofits?

December 17, 2013

When I became editor-in-chief of the Forward in 2008, it was my first professional job in the Jewish world and I had to quickly understand the complex and varied landscape of Jewish not-for-profits. As I met leader after leader, a question nagged at me: Why only men? Where are the women? Why are they so underrepresented in these institutions?

So I did what editors do: Assigned a story. Or more precisely, a survey.

My staff and I selected about 75 of the most important national Jewish organizations — the 18 largest federations, which act as umbrella social service agencies across the country; advocacy, service and defense groups; and religious and education institutions. Then we tried to answer two simple questions. Who is in charge, a man or a woman? And how much does he or she earn? Even though this is public information, it still took all the resources of our small staff to gather and verify the data, and then publish it as accurately and clearly as possible.

Our first survey, published at the end of 2009, painted a bleak picture of inequity: There were only eight women in leadership roles, and they earned roughly two-thirds of what the men earned.

Each year since, we’ve repeated the survey, adding more data about the size of the organizations — specifically, expenditures and number of employees. But the male/female ratio and the salary gap remained stubbornly consistent. I needed to better analyze the data to understand these trends.

So this year, the Forward partnered with a statistics professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, who supervised a student study of our 2013 survey data. They created a model to predict the salary of each organization based on size, and then used that model to illuminate the trends in compensation.

The Wharton analysis confirmed our own conclusion on the gender gap –- that women earn roughly two-thirds of what the men earned. At least we got that right. But why? Ever since the first survey appeared, those who defensively tried to explain the status quo said that women earned less because they ran smaller organizations, which generally pay their leaders less.

And that’s true. To a point. The Wharton analysis found that the “size gap” rather than the “sex gap” accounted for about half of the difference between salaries earned by men and women. But even when controlling for the size of the organizations, women still earned only about 81 cents of every dollar earned by men.

In other words, after controlling for size, gender discrimination forces women to earn only about four-fifths of what the men earn.

Why? I’ve puzzled about this for years. On the one hand, this discrepancy matches the gender salary gap found in many other sectors of the national economy. American Jewish not-for-profits, unfortunately, have plenty of company in this regard.

But that’s no excuse, as far as I’m concerned. I think there’s still a residual patriarchy in our community that has kept smart, capable women from rising in our organizations. The old (male) guard won’t relinquish its outdated model of leadership; it has been slow to recognize and develop new talent, and slow to institute family-friendly policies that enable women, and men, to be dedicated to their careers.

Consider: There are more Jewish women on the U.S. Supreme Court (two) than have ever run a major U.S. Jewish federation (one.)

And that one woman, Jennifer Gorovitz in San Francisco, is dramatically underpaid. I can say that because the second big take-away from the Wharton analysis is a fascinating list of the most overpaid and the most underpaid, using the predicted salary model as a basis for evaluation.

We learned that the five men who earned way more than they should based on the size of the organizations they lead – and they were all men – had been in their roles for decades, creating brand names for themselves on the national and, in some cases, international stages. They exemplify the situation many compensation experts warn against: the CEO who by dint of personality, seniority and political skill has a compliant board and, essentially, lifetime tenure.

The five most underpaid, meanwhile, included two women.

Of course, within these two extremes are the bulk of the leaders of Jewish charities, most of whom are not earning handsome salaries but are devoted to their work and their communities.

American Jews are nothing if not self-critical, and the Forward’s journalism reflects those high expectations. Five years after it was first published, this survey is used by readers across the country to evaluate their leaders and shape their donations. This year, with the enhanced analysis, I’m certain the conversations around the boardrooms and dinner tables will be even more dynamic. Good. We should be able to hold our leaders accountable, reward those who deserve it and withhold from those who don’t.

I urge other segments of the nation’s not-for-profit sector to examine their own leaders in this way. Yes, it is difficult and at times uncomfortable to shine such a harsh light on compensation and gender inequity, but charities are public trusts, and leading them is a privilege.

My work on these surveys has raised questions that go well beyond the Jewish world. Isn’t it time to re-examine the almost-blanket exemption granted religious institutions from any sort of transparency? The IRS says that not-for-profit leaders are not supposed to earn “excessive compensation.” Is that ever enforced? And how does the nation’s charity sector promote and retain talented women so that these institutions can benefit from the broadest possible pool of leaders?

I hope our work can be part of a broader conversation about these issues. We journalists are only the surrogates for all the people who contribute to, volunteer with, work for and benefit from American not-for-profits that need to be held to the highest standards of equality and transparency.

Jane Eisner is editor-in-chief of The Forward.

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Diana Reese · December 17, 2013