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Brookline, MA, United States
I'll post rants here, and musings; articles and thoughts about articles. I'll keep it quite complex and yet astoundingly simple: whatever it is I am interested in at any given moment.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

On Gender Dynamics in the Jewish Community: A Definition of Adaptive Change (Part 1 of [at least] 2)

I've had a post brewing for a little over a week about gender dynamics and the less-than-ideal (read: laughable) state of the Jewish community in grappling with them. I don't mean, for the record, Orthodoxy's struggles with what embracing the gender (as opposed to sexual) component of the feminist revolution, nor am I interested whatsoever in the pre-modern approach to femininity in ultra-Orthodox circles. I speak of the ways in which the organized Jewish community in America lags far behind its corporate cousins in advancing the cause of women in major leadership roles, a fact that is exacerbated by the disproportionately large representation of women in all other aspects of communal Jewish life.

My interests go far beyond that of concerned citizen. I have heard firsthand my father's accounts of the way that search committees treat female candidates, and watched from a relatively unique perch as the (mostly embarrassing) politics of a large Conservative synagogue played out - where women's involvement is the exception to the rule. I work for an organization that I have become increasingly convinced is the very definition of an old boys' network with all its overt ickiness and subtle prejudices. I have friends who are and will be female Rabbis, and campers I care for dearly who ought to embark on prominent careers in Jewish communal service; I hope someday to be the father of a girl who will want to play a role - professional or lay - in the Jewish world. And I am affiliated with the Wexner Foundation, an organization that places issues of gender dynamics not just on the front burner but on every burner.

My thinking on this topic has moved significantly in the last year, both as a result of listening to and engaging with real narratives and perceptions (which are, here, as good as realities as far as I'm concerned) and due to my reading of Leveling the Playing Field: Advancing Women in Jewish Organizational Life, by Wexner leadership guru Marty Linsky, Wexner feminism guru Shifra Bronznick (founder of publisher Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community), and Didi Goldenhar. I am not finished reading the book - such is life when you only read a book during the down moments in Friday night davening at Yakar - but it has changed the way I look at this particular issue and moved my positions on certain specific institutions and factors. The book is set up as a "guidebook" to walk its reader through a gender equality initiative in their organization, and focuses on what might be the highest profile version of this problem in the Jewish community - the heads of the largest Federations (that's up for debate). In doing so, however, I believe it also serves as a worthwhile guidebook to any difficult change initiative in any organization, and have recommended the book as such to anyone facing such an effort.

I realized that, before I enter into some of the specifics of my thinking in a forthcoming post, it was important for me to lay out a core piece of Leveling the Playing Field. I have written about Marty Linsky repeatedly on the blog [here and here] (and there is a long-brewing post about my recent experiences with leadershp at the Winter Institute of the WGF that will delve further into Marty's work) but have not yet found a space to actually articulate Marty's (with his partner, Ron Heifetz) paramount contribution to the field: the distinction between technical problems (and how to correct them) and adaptive challenges (and how to change them). Though I may bring other parts of the book to analyze in the future, I have found the very best articulation of this distinction in Leveling the Playing Field, which will serve as a basis both for the next post on gender dynamics and, I imagine, many more posts to come.

I quote from pp. 21-24 of the book:
Moving an Organization from Gender Inequity to Gender Equity is Deep Change - An Adaptive Challenge Rather than a Technical Problem

The single biggest mistake people make in exercising leadership is treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems.

Technical problems
live above the neck: they are susceptible to a good argument or to someone's expertise. Adaptive challenges live between the neck and the navel: they are about values and beliefs, ways of being, and sense of self.

Adaptive challenges are not about logic. They are about the experience of loss - the loss of what is familiar and comfortable, including expectations and rewards, and the loss of what people think of as the values that guide their everyday decisions.

Tampering with people's values is a different kind of work than influencing their logic. That's why leading deep organizational change is so difficult. And, while we may have a vision of what gender equity looks like, we have no guarantees about what the change will look like along the way, or how long the journey will take. Deep organizational change may take from seven to ten years. So, much of the difficulty of adaptive challenge is about tolerating the losses and ambiguous terrain that lie between the status quo and the Promised Land.

Here are a couple of examples that illustrate the difference between technical problems and adaptive challenges:

You go to your doctor with a broken finger. A broken finger is a complex technical problem that may require a cast, a splint, and some extra care in your daily activities. But many doctors can attend to the problem of a broken finger.

But what if you have high cholesterol? That's a different kind of problem. Your doctor can prescribe medication that may help. But she can't take your pills for you, and, more important, she can't stop eating chocolate ice cream for you or get up an hour earlier to exercise for you. Her expertise is useful, but the adaptive challenge lies within you. You will have to give up something you love - chocolate ice cream or that extra hour in bed - in favor of your health.

Here's an illustration from the Jewish world:

Your agency does not have a kosher kitchen. But when the organization hires its first Orthodox Jew, he asks if the kitchen can be koshered and kept kosher. Some staff members embrace the idea; others say that this is a major imposition. The CEO supports the change, saying that a Jewish organization should respect its most observant member. New dishes and utensils are purchased, and the appliances are blow-torched. That speaks to the technical problem.

Two months later, the meat and milk dishes still get mixed up despite elaborate systems to label everything. The technical problem has been solved, but the nonkosher staff members are resisting the adaptive challenge. They value their own religious choices; for them, a kosher kitchen at work means giving up individual freedoms, like bringing leftovers from home or ordering from the local pizzeria.

Organizations typically try to address adaptive challenges as technical problems. Individuals and groups will almost always try to interpret issues as technical, individual, and win-win, rather than adaptive and systemic. That way, no one has to endure any losses or deal with conflict.

Advancing gender equity in Jewish organizational life is an adaptive challenge because it will expose the gap between the espoused values of the agency, as epxressed by the people at the top, and the real norms, as embodied by day-to-day behaviors. Part of your role will be to keep the adaptive change central - with all its disturbing implications - while the pressure is on to come up with short-term, technical Band-Aids that allow you to avoid dealing with deeper issues.

Most adaptive challenges involve some technical aspects. Sometimes a Band-Aid approach is the only way to start the change process. Sometimes a modest, more technical idea can test the waters, and you can incorporate this idea into a larger, more ambitious strategy. But be forewarned: since most organizations gravitate toward technical fixes, you will have to evaluate at each step along the way whether a proposed technical fix is a step toward an adaptive change or a diversion from it.

Leading Deep Organizational Change, Such as a Gender Equity Initiative, is Difficult Work

If you embrace this challenge, be prepared for the difficulty ahead.

There is an idea tha tpeople do not like change. Wrong. Winning the lottery will certainly change your life, but no one gives away a winning lottery ticket.

People resist significant change when they experience it as a threat or as a potential loss, no matter how good they think it will be for them.

Resistance to gender equity will surface in all the familiar arguments - that there are no qualified women for high-level jobs; that women aren't good fundraisers; that women choose family before work; that the statistics don't prove anything; that raising gender issues will lead to lawsuits or embarrssing stories in the media; or that the issue is effectiveness, not gender equity.

Be prepared for this resistance since it is likely to appear in both direct and indirect forms. When an organization makes a commitment to gender equity, people who benefit from the current system may feel threatened. Men who have been waiting for their chance at the brass ring - and doing everything expected of them along the way - may feel cheated if the rules of engagement change. The same may be true for women who have adapted to the male-dominated culture by already making significant compromises in their personal or professional lives in order to succeed.

In the face of resistance, you and your colleagues will need to exercise consistent leadership. People typically avoid leadership because it means putting themselves out there - taking risks and making people uncomfortable. That's why exercising leadership requires both skill and courage.

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