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The Glass Pulpit

The Glass Pulpit

Female rabbis in the Conservative movement face obstacles to career advancement not unlike those encountered by women in other historically male-dominated professions.

A new report shows that women rabbis earn $77,000 annually on average, while men make about 50 percent more, earning an average of $119,000 per year.
The study also found that women tend to lead smaller and less populous congregations, and hold fewer influential non-pulpit positions than do their male counterparts.

Though not altogether surprising, the findings confirm what until now had been only anecdotal evidence of a gender gap in the Conservative rabbinate.
The 15-page report, “Gender Variation in the Careers of Conservative Rabbis: A Survey of Rabbis Ordained Since 1985,” commissioned by the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative rabbis, was undertaken by Steven Cohen, a sociologist at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“The study validated what women rabbis have been saying for years about our experiences in professional life,” Rabbi Joanna Samuels, 34, of Congregation Habonim, a Conservative synagogue on the Upper West Side, told The Jewish Week. “What really resonated with me was that in the arms of the Conservative movement, women are not in leadership roles and often — not always — their issues are seen as women’s issues.

“There are Jewish issues and there are women’s issues, and women suffer from the lack of integration,” she said.

The findings are based on in-depth questionnaires completed over the past year by 233 U.S.-based Conservative rabbis ordained since 1985 — the year the Jewish Theological Seminary ordained its first female rabbis.

The vast salary differential is due in part to the fact that men are more likely than women to work full-time and overtime in pulpit jobs at large congregations, according to Cohen. But the report also shows that men out-earn women even when they perform comparable jobs. For example, women leading congregations with fewer than 250 families earned an average of $74,000, substantially less than the $95,000 average by men.

“There’s always been a sense that there were fewer pulpits that were really open to women rabbis … and that people still have difficulty seeing women in a position that they haven’t grown up seeing women in,” said Rabbi Shira Leibowitz, 38, a 1993 JTS graduate and lower school principal of The Solomon Schechter School of Westchester. “The study raises the question of how much the differences between men’s and women’s career paths are their choices, and how much they are accommodations to a complex reality.”

The survey’s findings also reveal how the birth and raising of children differently affects the work patterns of men and women. Of the respondents with children, 15 percent of women and 78 percent of men were full-time pulpit rabbis. Upon becoming parents, the report stated, “Men move to positions that are generally higher-paying, and women reduce their professional engagement in line with their expanded (or new) role as parents.”

The salary gap lessens the likelihood of career advancement for rabbis with young children, according to Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the RA’s director of Rabbinic Development, who served as the study’s project manager.

“They have to have a certain amount of earning power to justify their absence from home,” she said.

Cohen added that rabbinical search committees might perceive mothers as having less time to devote to high-pressure pulpit jobs.

“It’s possible the marketplace penalizes women for being mothers but doesn’t penalize men for being fathers,” he said

Shoshana Winograd-Hutner, 23, a second-year rabbinical student at JTS, looks forward to a day when becoming a mother isn’t as likely to mean putting a rabbinical career on hold.

“Traditionally the expectation placed on the rabbi is that the congregation comes first and family comes second,” she said. “A lot of women aren’t willing to make that complete sacrifice. Over time, women in the rabbinate will help shift the idea of what a rabbi is. But that’s probably another 10 years off.”

Rabbi Marion Shulevitz, 71, a New York City nursing home chaplain who was among the first female rabbinical students at JTS, noted that women still do most of the work at home.

“We’re still the ones who pick up the pieces,” Rabbi Shulevitz said. “It’s unfortunate because I’ve met some extraordinary women who left the pulpit because they could not meet the demands of their congregation and the demands of their families.”

The study also concludes that women are more likely than men to be unmarried; to perceive gender bias in the hiring practices of rabbinical search committees; to report being exposed to hurtful workplace remarks about their gender and age; and to encounter more frequent incidences of termination or non-renewal of their contracts.

The report attributes the gender-based variations to four factors: bias against female aspirants; differences in workplace goals and expectations; women’s perceived domestic responsibilities; and a historical lag created by the long-held prohibition against women rabbis in the Conservative movement.

In response to the study, the RA outlined its strategies to close the gender gap. They include establishing a mentoring program for women entering the rabbinate; redoubling efforts to help women rabbis negotiate equitable contracts; and offering development workshops for women rabbis wishing to return to full-time work after a period of part-time employment.

The assembly also called for a follow-up study of synagogue search committees and other rabbinic employers “to tease out some of the more subtle issues contributing to the gender gap.”

“What we want is action,” Rabbi Schonfeld said. “We took on this study to educate congregations and make them aware that the gender gap exists. So when they’re looking at a candidate, they’re asking themselves,‘ Are we negotiating with a woman in the same way we would negotiate with her male counterpart?’ ”
While the new research may verify only what was suspected all along, many women rabbis agree that the findings are no less valuable.
“We are in a society that wants things proven, that wants facts,” Rabbi Shulevitz said. “This does the job.”

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