Enhancing Female Leadership in Modern Orthodox Day Schools

Meryl Feldblum

The issue of female leadership, or lack of female leadership, in Jewish day schools is complex. Often the hurdles placed before women, or the doors closed to them, aren’t clearly visible. But empowering the women in our institutions is not only about fairness and equality; it’s about modeling for both male and female students, during their most formative years, that women are valued, have a place at the table, and can and should be leaders. Modeling this lesson through purposeful actions speaks volumes.

Like other independent schools, Jewish day school administration is unbalanced in terms of gender. The head of school position is clearly male-dominated. For 2017-2018, the National Association of Independent Schools reported that only some 36% of NAIS heads are female, despite the disproportionately high number of women who are teachers, still the most likely background for heads. The situation in Jewish day schools is arguably worse, according to past studies, and it needs to be addressed.

Removing hurdles and opening doors to female leadership must always be intentional. Change is not easy to implement. Schools, like all organizations, are rooted in traditions and systems that are complicated, and change will have many and varied consequences, some anticipated and some unexpected.

Addressing this gap is also complicated. I am completing a study examining the experiences of female Judaic studies faculty at Modern Orthodox day schools across the US. They are very aware of existing discrepancies in gender balance in administration and have provided me with the following thoughts and suggestions to help to change the status quo.


The lack of women in leadership positions is a systemic problem, which requires systemic changes. Jewish day schools must institute practices that support women’s advancement in the workforce. This process begins with recruitment and hiring.

Word-of-Mouth Hiring

Many day schools do not publicize administrative openings, relying mostly on word-of-mouth hiring practices. Instead of placing ads in local papers or turning to head hunters, school leaders often ask colleagues in the day school world for recommendations when there are openings in the administration. These word-of- mouth practices may not be purposefully discriminatory, but they lead to unintentionally unfair—and potentially illegal—hiring practices all the same.

A New York Times article describing the recent trend among major businesses to rely on employee referrals for non-entry level positions pointed out the dangers of this practice: First, people tend to recommend people much like themselves, a phenomenon known as assortative matching. Secondly, 64% percent of employees recommended candidates of the same sex, while 72% favored the same race or ethnicity. Furthermore, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, word-of-mouth hiring “in a non-diverse workforce is a barrier to equal employment opportunity if it does not create applicant pools that reflect the diversity in the qualified labor market.” “Word-of-mouth” hiring that results in mostly male applicants is not representative of the population, and therefore discriminatory. Our Jewish day school leaders and stakeholders must commit to recruitment and hiring practices that don’t rely on word of mouth and open the doors to female candidates.

Fair Pay

An AVI CHAI report noted a large discrepancy between male and female administrators:

Gender is a powerful factor in salary determinizations, with women principals being paid significantly below what men earn. … In their first year of service at their current school, no men earned below $60,000, while 10% of the women did. At the other end of the pay scale, there were men who earned above $180,000 in their first year, but no women. Ten percent of first-year women are in the three highest salary categories of $120,000 or above. The comparable statistic for men is nearly 40%. For principals who have served between five and ten years at their present school, one-quarter of the women were paid above $120,000, while for men the figure is close to 60%.

These numbers will likely not come as a surprise to those working in the Jewish day school world. When I spoke to women currently working in the day school world, they expressed feelings of frustration, resentment and discouragement because they saw their work and commitment to Jewish education being unappreciated and undervalued. Creating pay scales that ensure fair, transparent and structured salaries would help alleviate this problem.

It is important to remember when creating payment structures that in those communities in which rabbinic ordination is closed to women, they are systematically excluded from moving up the payment ladder. Schools must create avenues that allow for women to earn salary status equivalent to their male rabbinic counterparts and in my opinion, equating a doctorate with semichah is not an equitable solution. Many schools consider semichah equivalent to a doctorate for the purposes of a pay scale, but even according to Yeshiva University, semichah is a master’s program.

HR Departments

Jewish schools tend not to have HR departments. While HR departments increase costs, the ancillary benefits of having them could be well worth the investment. Both of the issues mentioned earlier—hiring practices and payment structures—should live within an HR department and not solely with the head of school. Furthermore, HR departments allow for a safe space for the discussion of workplace gender issues. For schools where budgetary restrictions simply won’t allow for a true HR department, school leaders must create policies and procedures that are well-communicated, transparent and adhered to strictly.


School culture is difficult to define and thus even more difficult to change. School culture is often a mixture of policies, procedures, rituals, behavior and beliefs. Many of these practices are ingrained and, at the same time, unintentional. It is this mixture that can create an environment that is not conducive for women’s advancement.

The Old Boys’ Club

Many of the women I spoke to, across many schools in many different areas of the US, felt that their schools’ culture excluded them from leadership roles and opportunities. They described a “rebbe culture,” which in turn created an “old boys’ club.” One of the participants in the study explained that many of the rabbis in her school are friends with the all-male administration; they socialize in and out of school, creating a “circle of safety” for the male faculty, and by definition excluding the women. “Old boys’ clubs” may seem harmless, but in actuality these groups allow men to network and form relationships that lead to more opportunities. Men in the group naturally get their voices heard more and take part in more important conversations.

What makes “old boys’ clubs” complicated is the informal nature of these groups. There is no rule that women cannot join these informal clubs, but the nature of the group excludes women, especially in Orthodox circles where there is a certain expectation of gender separation. School leaders are often unaware of these clubs and the impact they have on women and their careers. In some cases, they are aware but don’t know how to address the issue.

There isn’t an easy solution, but we can start by defining clear boundaries that separate professional relationships from personal relationships. Because this process lives in the details, the changes may need to be granular. Administrators should avoid office hangout sessions, leave group chats, and even withdraw from fantasy football leagues and other informal groups. Small steps like these will help break down informal groups that have historically excluded women.

The Public Face

Culture lives in the details. A number of interviewees described the all-male face of their school. The faculty who run programs, the guest speakers and the student leaders are all male. While none of these phenomena are instituted policies, they do create an environment that marginalizes both female faculty and students.

When it comes to culture changes, actions speak louder than words. Administrators must go beyond lip service; stating that a school values and appreciates their female faculty is not enough. School leaders need to take steps that build a culture that promotes female leadership. One participant suggested having an “institutional framework in place to counterset the tone, to make this stuff normal.” She envisioned a structure in which for every male speaker, there would be a female speaker. If the male principal runs one program, the female associate principal would run the next. Administrators should institute policies that reinforce this behavior among the students, like having male and female student body presidents every year. In essence, schools must “force” a female public face to counteract the historic lack of a female public presence. This change does not have to come at the expense of a male presence—it should be in addition to the male presence.

The avenue to a better future begins with listening. All of the ideas above were compiled from listening to what women had to say about their own experiences. The women in every school will have the best insight into the most practical and impactful changes that can be made in their specific settings. Giving women a voice is the best and easiest first step.

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HaYidion In These Times Winter 2019
In These Times
Winter 2019