The Avodah Blog

Traversing the Gender Gap

From AVODAH: Many thanks to Rachel Lee for raising issues of sexism and gender oppression. These are critical issues in the broader society and ones we are committed to grappling with in AVODAH.

Points of information:

  • AVODAH has a policy of only accepting into the year-long program candidates who meet our acceptance criteria–none of which is linked to gender.
  • We have an explicit policy not privileging male-identified candidates over female-identified candidates, or candidates with any other gender identity.
  • Our recruitment practices reflect a determined effort to reach out to populations and individuals from a range of race, class, gender, and other identities and backgrounds.

We welcome continued discussion on issues of gender, power and privilege on the AVODAH blog.

Last week’s post explored how AVODAH’s male participants experienced their year of service as a minority in a majority female-identified milieu. Hoping to broaden the discussion, Rachel Lee (New Orleans 08-09) shared a letter she wrote to AVODAH staff last year that questions the implications of a ‘gender gap’. Rachel’s astute observations were well-received by AVODAH, particularly as the organization began this past year’s recruitment period. A portion of Rachel’s letter is posted below:

“The question we really need to address as a community is not ‘why don’t more men apply to AVODAH’, but rather, ‘why are women disproportionately represented in AVODAH and how does this reflect systemic inequalities in the distribution of labor?’ This is a question that has been absent from our curricular discussions of gender, but is one that I think is crucial to pursuing justice.

“If we strip away all the amenities of AVODAH––the housing, communal living, programming and retreats––it is easier to see how gender comes into play. While all these features are essential to the AVODAH experience, the majority of our time and energy is devoted to one thing: work. Our work is most often referred to as ‘social justice’ and ‘anti-poverty’, seemingly gender-neutral terms. These terms are accurate, but if you look closely at our job descriptions, a more mundane list can be compiled: social worker, secretary, administrator, bookkeeper, educator, care taker, counselor, community organizer. These are all reasonable descriptions for the kind of work we do day in and day out. With the exception of community organizer, these are roles that have traditionally been defined as ‘women’s work’.

“For as long as women have been socially relegated to a separate ‘sphere’ from men, we have turned to teaching and care work when we did not want to or could not afford to be full time mothers and wives. These fields have historically given us a degree of financial independence and self-worth. We learn from a young age that this is the work that is appropriate for us to do. While our brothers and male peers were getting their first jobs mowing lawns, we were looking for babysitting gigs. We discovered early that this was the kind of work where we would be allowed to succeed, where we could leave the female sphere without having our femininity questioned. Women like my grandma, a classmate of Sandra Day O’Connor in the first co-ed class at Stanford Law School, learned how hard it was to enter fields dominated by men. They were questioned every step of the way, called lesbians or bad mothers. They were not seen as ‘real women’.

“It is no accident that the entry level of the non-profit sector is often ‘women’s work’. For-profit companies make things, non-profits fix things. ‘Making’ has historically been the job of men, ‘fixing’ the job of women (both in the sense of mending and preparing). Of course there are men who choose to work at non-profits––my unresearched guess is that their numbers increase the higher up you go in the ranks––but in the trenches, most of the people I have observed and worked with at anti-poverty non-profits have been women. For many women with enough class privilege to choose between non-profit jobs and careers as doctors, lawyers or executives, we pick the less lucrative path because we know at a gut level that there will be fewer barriers to our success.

“All this talk of ‘the way things are’ and ‘the way work has historically been constructed’ should not necessarily dictate the way things should continue to be. The fact that the placements offered by AVODAH fall under the category of ‘women’s work’ does not mean that men should not be equally welcomed in the program. It does, however, warrant thoughtful measures to prevent unintentional sexism. Every time a male candidate is selected over a female because of his gender, both parties are dehumanized. The unique qualities and accomplishments of both are ignored in a misguided effort to create ‘balance’ in the bayit.

“If the situation were reversed and 90% of the participants were male, I contend that much less effort would be expended in the name of ‘balance’. We are accustomed to male-dominated settings. From professional sports to the halls of Congress, we are used to seeing groups of middle-class, straight, white men as merely groups of humans. It is only when subordinate groups are disproportionately afforded privileges (free housing, education or work opportunities) that it starts to be a problem. In addition to being primarily female, AVODAH is primarily white, heterosexual and middle class. Any effort to ‘correct’ these ‘imbalances’ has not been made public to my knowledge.”

2 Responses to Traversing the Gender Gap

  1. rachel says:

    I just want to reiterate Ora’s note that this letter was respectfully received by AVODAH staff when I sent it about a year ago. I’m really interested in the broader conversation it might spark with alumni and current corps members, so please don’t hesitate to post your comments and/or shoot me an email.

    xoxo rachel

  2. Michal says:

    Rachel,

    This is a really important perspective, thanks for publishing it here.

    I would push us to recognize additional reasons that women might be drawn to a program like AVODAH and the non-profit work AVODAHniks are placed in. Yes, there are fewer barriers to our success in workplaces like these. But I don’t think this is the only reason women seek out these types of jobs.

    As a queer woman, I have experienced oppression based on my gender and sexual orientation. Although I do have the privileges of being white, middle class, and able-bodied, I feel better able to relate to people without these privileges–people of color, poor people, and people with disabilities–because of the places in my own life where I have experienced oppression. My ability to be in solidarity with folks experiencing kinds of oppression that I have never experienced stems from experiences that I have had.

    In many ways, being a queer woman radicalized me. First I became a feminist, and later I became an activist. My placement at REACH NOLA and my participation in AVODAH provided me with a number of ways to live an activist lifestyle and work for social change.