Women and Change: Through the Lens with Deborah Corber

Federation CJA Chief Executive Officer Deborah Corber takes a look back… and towards the future.

Deborah Corber, CEO of Federation CJA.

In my first year of law school (1981) I had a running dispute with a classmate – an avowed feminist – about the use of the term “reasonable man” in our Torts class. (In deciding whether a defendant has been negligent, common law courts ask what a hypothetical person – a “reasonable man on the Clapham omnibus” – would have done.) Catherine believed that language was important in influencing attitudes and behavior, and insisted that our professor was sexist because he refused to substitute “reasonable man or woman” or simply “reasonable person” for the offending reference to “reasonable man“.

Like many of the women in my class, I was completely under the spell of our visiting professor from Cambridge University (in today’s vernacular he would definitely have been described as “hot”), and rejected any criticism of him. I argued that “the reasonable man” was simply a term of art, and that our professor’s use of the expression did not make him a sexist. The fact that women represented 50% of our graduating class at Osgoode Hall Law School was evidence enough of a level playing field and Catherine just needed to lighten up!

Fast forward 30 years to my appointment as Chief Executive Officer here at Federation CJA, only the second woman to head a large city federation in North America (Jennifer Gorovitz of San Francisco having been the first).  As I write this piece, Jennifer Gorovitz will be leaving her post as CEO of the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund in the coming months. Jennifer is the consummate Jewish communal professional, and has been an exceptional role model for women professionals who aspire to take on senior leadership positions in the federation system. Her departure will be a loss to that system as a whole, and a personal loss for me.

At the same time, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has just appointed Naomi Adler as CEO, the first woman to hold this job in Philly, and a welcome addition to the ranks of female professional leadership in the federation world.  So women are holding steady at 10% of CEOs running large federations in North America: hardly a cause for celebration, when you consider that we make up 70-80% of the Jewish communal labor force. In the United States alone, there remains only 1 Jewish woman out of 18 leading a large federation, compared with 2 Jewish women out of 9 on the Supreme Court (Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan). And while interpreting statistics is a complicated business, there is no denying the fact that across North America, Jewish women professionals continue to earn less than their male counterparts.

On the Right Path

That said, it’s important to recognize that Federation CJA is getting a good number of things right.  Shortly before I arrived, we went through an extensive pay equity exercise and invested the necessary resources to ensure that women professionals were being paid equally for work of equal value.

Two of the 4 senior professionals who report directly to me are women: Laura Fish (Chief Strategy and Planning Officer) and Lesli Green (Chief Communications Officer). Laura and Lesli are highly accomplished women who are making important contributions to our organization and raising the bar for female and male Jewish communal professionals.

Our Director of Campaign, Natou Suissa, is the second woman to hold this position, Kathy Assayag having served in this role from 2002 through 2004. Together, Natou and Kathy (who becomes the lead professional at the Jewish Community Foundation in September) are proof positive that in our community, women can indeed aspire to the highest levels of fundraising.

Four of the 6 managers in our Operations Group – holding traditionally male-dominated positions such as Finance and Information Technology – are women.  And beyond Federation CJA, many of our agencies and communal institutions are led by superb women executives.[1]

In terms of lay leadership, we have a woman president in Susan Laxer, a woman president of the Jewish Community Foundation in Brenda Gewurz, a woman co-chair of our upcoming Mega Mission in Gail Adelson Marcovitz, and key leadership roles have been and continue to be played by women across the organization.

Evaluating Opportunities

Still, I can’t help wondering what we could and should be doing better.  On the lay side, it is evident to me that we need to do a better job of ensuring gender balance on our Board and on all of our committees.  We must create more opportunities for professional and business women to engage with us: we should make it easier for them to play leadership roles within Federation CJA while they are striving to balance full-time work with family responsibilities (without a “wife” at home to simplify the task).

As for communal professionals, Federation CJA appears to be leading the pack in terms of female representation in senior management.  But what about the many talented women in middle management and junior positions?  How can we develop them professionally so that they are well-positioned to take on executive leadership when opportunity knocks?[2]  Do we have the right policies in place to support women professionals as they strive to balance the demands of work with the demands of raising a family or supporting aging parents?[3]  Are we conscious of the role that Jewish community values and culture play in advancing or hindering women from realizing their full potential?  One of our greatest strengths is the extensive involvement of volunteers and lay leaders in the work that we do – unquestionably a key factor in our extraordinary success as a federation.  But do our lay-professional relationships as a whole foster an environment in which women professionals are rewarded for affirmative, rather than subservient or supportive behavior?

I don’t know the answers to these and many other questions, but I’m ready to start tackling them.  In my first two years at Federation CJA, the most pressing task was to master the job, to decipher the national and international landscape in which our federation is situated, and to build relationships within our federation family and with partners outside of it.  It’s time now for me to think more deeply about how we at Federation CJA and in the broader Jewish community measure up on the gender front.

Excellence is Not Gender Specific

This is not in any way to suggest that women deserve any more of my/our attention than men, or that advancing women can ever be at the expense of nurturing men within our system.  On the contrary, excellence demands that we continue to develop and empower all of our professionals – women and men alike.  But I believe that strategies to advance women will also serve to strengthen each and every one of us, making our Jewish community the ultimate beneficiary.

Today I understand the power of language and symbols in shaping our world.  I recognize that I have a responsibility as the first female CEO to help advance Jewish women as communal professionals and as lay leaders here in Montreal, and beyond.  Maybe 30 years later, I should give Catherine a call and tell her that I finally get it.


[1] While numbers without context can be misleading, it is worth noting that women professionals make up 69% of the Federation CJA workforce, and 56% of management positions.

[2] There is currently huge turnover across Canadian federations, with 5 communities looking to fill CEO vacancies over the course of this year alone: Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg and Toronto.  It will be fascinating to see how many women are ultimately appointed to head these federations.

[3] Of course, adopting family friendly policies serves to benefit both women and men, and makes good business sense in any workplace that hopes to attract and retain top talent: one example of how advancing women can strengthen organizations more broadly.

  • jennie bronstein says:

    Well done and I agree with your policy. You are doing a great job. Our Montreal community is very unique in our commitment to each other and to others. Keep up your wonderful work and inspirational spirit.

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