At Jewish non-profits, a push for gender equality upends c-suite norms

A growing number of female executives are pushing for a title change to match male peers

Ivy Harlev had been the executive director of Wilmington, Delaware’s Jewish Community Center for 12 years when, at a JCC executives’ conference last year, she heard Gali Cooks speak about women at Jewish agencies with the title CEO — as opposed to the more commonly used ‘executive director’ title. “A lightbulb went off,” she told Jewish Insider.

Cooks’ organization, Leading Edge, an independent organization that takes a sector-wide approach to addressing challenges in the professional Jewish community, annually surveys Jewish non-profit organizations. Its 2018 survey of 108 groups found that male leaders were more likely to have the title CEO or president, but when women had the equivalent leadership position, the title was more often executive director – even when the organizations were the same size. Leading Edge found that 35 percent of women who run the Jewish organizations surveyed had the title of executive director, compared to just 11 percent of men. Seventy-five percent of male leaders in the surveyed organizations had the title CEO, president or president and CEO, whereas 52% of the women in similar roles had one of those titles.  

Today a growing number of female executive directors of Jewish non-profit organizations are asking that their title be changed to CEO. In many cases it is granted, occasionally after resistance, said Cooks in an interview.

Cooks herself was Leading Edge’s founding executive director and had her title changed to president and CEO in early 2019. “Since changing my title, people’s posture has changed when meeting me, like they’re thinking, ‘Oh, we’re going to take her seriously.’ As an external vehicle it’s the most powerful asset someone can have. A mental shift happens, too, so women think, ‘I’m worthy of this. Let me own it.’ My own posture has changed. I’m at the table and I deserve to be at the table. That’s been the biggest shift.”

While there has been no tracking of how many female-identifying executives have changed their titles, it is a new phenomenon in the past year or two, said Cooks and others, and is picking up pace. 

“We’re definitely getting more inquiries from women who have earned their stripes and deserve recognition for it. That’s what this is – them being seen, and seen as whole leaders,” Cooks said. “This is a signal that titles matter.”

There have been no similar studies in the larger world of non-profit organizations, said Erinn Andrews, director of philanthropy research and education at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.

Stefanie Rhodes has been leading the Slingshot Fund as executive director for five years, and just over a year ago asked that her title be changed to CEO. The request was granted. “The majority of my colleagues who are women running organizations have the title CEO now,” she told JI. “I take that as a sign of success, that there’s a shift in the field and its willingness to have equity for men and women.”

Brent Saliman is the immediate past president of Wilmington’s Siegel JCC, and was president when Harlev asked for the title change. “We’d never had a CEO before. We wanted to understand what was taking place” in the field, he told JI. “She had done her homework, so she knew trends across the Jewish Community Centers Association and among non-profit leaders in Delaware Valley, and Jewish non-profits generally. That created a compelling case,” said Salimen.

The board of directors approved Harlev’s request the same day she made it, she said.

Saliman notes that there are different expectations of a CEO than an executive director. “With that title there is definitely an expectation of stewardship, leadership and empowerment. I’ve been working with Ivy in refining those skill sets and she’s made significant progress in the last few years,” he said. “I don’t think it’s changed how we see her. It’s changed how she sees her role. It’s given her the confidence of being a leader among her peers.”

Occasionally the idea for the title change comes from a board of directors, as it did for Judith Rosenbaum. She had been executive director of the Jewish Women’s Archive for five years when, last summer, her board asked her to consider it. She asked them to decide and they bounced it back to her, Rosenbaum told JI. “Though I was also somewhat ambivalent, I ultimately decided to go with the change based on feedback from friends who had changed their titles and felt it was a positive change.”

Rabbi Carole Balin told JI that when she became JWA’s board chair in 2019, she suggested changing Rosenbaum’s “title from executive director to CEO, [because] we know well how critical language is in communicating values. More and more Jewish non-profits have started to take their cues from the corporate world to ensure that their professionals are given titles that accurately reflect the extensive scope of their responsibilities…We welcome this trend and feel especially keen to make this change at JWA to show that female Jewish professionals are as worthy of this title as their male peers.”

“In my chevra of women EDs there’s been a lot of conversation about it. My board said it’s an equity issue because it makes women’s leadership weightier,” Rosenbaum told JI. “For better or worse, some of my fellow female CEOs said they do feel that people treat them more seriously.”

Avodah CEO Cheryl Cook’s title changed last year, she told JI. “I run a national organization, and was surprised to see many local organizations with men at the helm with the CEO title.  I approached my board with Gali’s report and at the next board meeting, they voted to change my title. I don’t think the change of title impacts my work, but it does impact how people perceive me. And more than that, I think men and women in equivalent roles should have equivalent titles.”

Some female executive directors are reluctant to change their title to CEO. One, who heads a $4 million Jewish non-profit organization, spoke with JI on the condition that she not be identified. She said she is concerned that changing her title might signify a more corporate approach at the organization, which has a “homey, community-based vibe” that she wants to maintain. “I feel non-profits shouldn’t just go the corporate route,” she said. Changing her title to CEO, she pointed out, “could be a slippery slope into corporate values that put efficiency and the bottom line before attention to culture, mission and values.”

Having the title CEO confers more gravitas and power on those who possess it and in the long term will shift the way women leaders are perceived in the Jewish non-profit world, said Cooks. “The more we can see women being called CEO and leading organizations, the more we can shift the mental model of leadership… Women are perceived as better leaders the more we see them in leadership positions for longer periods of time.”

Having a CEO title in a current position also impacts the next job, said Jamie Allen Black, CEO of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York. “When a search team is looking for a CEO and you come across the desk as an executive director that person gets pushed off to the side,” she said. “In the larger world, even in the larger Jewish world, people don’t understand what an ED is but they do understand what a CEO is.”

Black was hired as JWFNY’s executive director in 2016, and 18 months into her job, during a review with its board chair, asked that her title be changed. She also asked for a contract and that she be given a month-long sabbatical every 3.5 years in addition to vacation time. JWFNY’s board had questions, and Black connected them with Cooks. After that, her request was granted.

The title shift has changed the way Harlev sees her position, the JCC CEO told JI. “I had to get my head around it. I’m not just the executive director of a feel-good non-profit, I’m the chief executive of a non-profit business.” 

“As I go to other organizations and build other relationships it’s good to have this title,” Harlev said. “It’s more positive to say I’m a CEO than executive director. Words matter, and this carries a little weight. And I thought it was important for the future for women. I was just at a Rotary Club event and was introduced as CEO. I feel like my head was a little higher.”

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