Building Bridges with Boards: The Gender Inequality on The YU Board of Trustees

By: Elka Wiesenberg  |  February 15, 2018

The civilized world has been thrown into an uproar with all the commotion which #MeToo has caused. There are daily arguments debating the movement’s merits and pitfalls. Are more people being harmed by unfair allegations than helped for actual harassment cases? Are women going too far in the pursuit of validation, or not far enough?

Disregarding anyone’s support or objections, one thing is certain: Gender inequality has once again been thrust to the forefront of social justice discussions. Thanks to #MeToo, justice has been called for concerning many global issues in women’s rights, as well as many smaller-scale problems.

It’s time for the spotlight to be directed home–to the gender gap on Yeshiva University’s Board of Trustees.

The American Council on Education (ACE) reports that the average percentage of women on governing boards of universities is at a pitiful 30%. At YU, the numbers are far more extreme, as women hold a mere three of the 27 Trustees positions on The Yeshiva University Board of Trustees. This is excluding the numbers of the Chairman, the four Vice Chairmen, and the Treasurer of The Board, all six of whom are male.

This raises one predominant question: Are women–who make up 51% of the student body– being equally represented at YU if only 11.1% of the Board of Trustees is female?

Before addressing this question, it is important to understand what the Board of Trustees does. Ms. Marjorie Blenden, Vice President of The Blenden Group, former Chair of the Stern College Board, and current member of the Yeshiva University Board of Trustees, explained that the Board is essentially liable for any actions and decisions of the institution as a whole. “The fiduciary responsibility, as I understand it, lies with the members of the Board. The Board is not only advisory, but they are responsible,” she said. This means that the Board has an overarching responsibility concerning any major problems or changes that need to be resolved or made in Yeshiva University. Trustees must attend several long meetings annually, and each Board member also must head at least one or two committees at YUof which, Ms. Blenden promises with a laugh, there are several.

Being a YU Board of Trustees member is a commitment of time and dedication. According to Blenden, “What you look for in a Board [member] is someone who will support the mission of the college or university. You look for someone who will give you that support, who is able to give you the time and the effort. And it does take time.”

Yeshiva University has had female Board members since its inception. In fact, there have been times when there was a slightly higher percentage of women on the Board than there is now, in 2018. So why do we have this seemingly unforgivable shortage of women now?

At the very least, there are three women on the Board. In fact, a Korn Ferry Institute article about women on Wall Street, brought to my attention by Dean of Undergraduate Arts and Sciences Dr. Karen Bacon, says having at least three women on a Board makes a visible difference in revenue numbers. The article quotes the stock index firm MSCI, stating that organizations with at least three women on the board had “consistently higher returns on equity” than firms without this much female board representation. While three might be the minimum women necessary on a Board for this productivity increase, it still leaves a blatantly unequal gender ratio in this case. Shouldn’t gender inequality be considered during Board member selection?

“It’s not about gender,” Blenden insisted resolutely. “It’s about who is the best fit. Male or female…To [select Board members] gender-wise doesn’t make sense to me. It’s about the individual. That’s what counts.”

I wondered about this statement. What could possibly be so important in selecting a Board member that even Ms. Blenden, who expressed a desire for more female inclusion on The Board of Trustees, could overlook the gender gap and accept that whenever the next Board member is appointed, the percentage of females might not go up? What qualities does a Board member really need, so much so that it could take precedence over ensuring equality?

Blenden expressed a powerful sentiment on this matter. She passionately declared,

“Part of [being on] the committee is a belief in the mission, an ability to support the Board and the school, and the ability to give your timeand the desire to give your timeto the school. Because it does take time. It’s not just going to four or five meetings a year…you have to be willing to give that time, and… to spend [your] time pursuing the benefits of the university, doing what you can for the school. There is no one, I believe, who sits on [the Board of Trustees] who does not care. Like you care for your family, you care for the school.”

The genuine belief in YU’s mission of a Torah U’Mada education, so apparent in Blenden’s voice, is expressed in her aims for the University: “You want to make sure that you have the right facilities, but more importantly, for me anyhow, that you have the right faculty. And that you can open your doors for the students who want to come… You want to do what’s best for them.”

Every Board member, according to Blenden, pours all possible resources into YU. Even though many of them are businessmen and lawyers, Blenden believes that “as much time as they give their own personal businesses or practices, that’s how much time they give to the University.”

However, no matter how much each Board member gives to Yeshiva University, it is hard to believe that there is a shortage of accomplished women like Ms. Blenden or her fellow Trustees, Ms. Shira Yoshor and Ms. Naomi Azrieli, who believe in YU’s mission and would dedicate their lives to it. It can’t be “Mission: Impossible” to find them, if the effort were really put in. Perhaps a belief that finding capable women is not so difficult betrays a blind faith in the female gender. Perhaps YU really has tried to find more female Board members than it has succeeded in recruiting.

Blenden, on the other hand, seems to be of the opinion that any inequality on YU’s Board is unintentional. “It’s only because no one has suggested it. I am sure that is the reason. It’s not because they decided.”

A possible problem that causes the gender gap, Blenden suggested, is the cycle of men recommending men for the Board of Trustees. She explained, “If you ask a man, ‘Do you have anybody that you would recommend [for the Board]?’ he would recommend another man. I think that’s really the only [issue]–there is no rule that says it has to be 10/30, 10/50. [Men] work with men in business, they’re friendly with men.”

I suggested to Ms. Blenden that perhaps, with women climbing in number in business, law, and other prestigious fields, these distinguished men will have more association with distinguished women in the workforce, and will have more female recommendations in the future. Blenden agreed–perhaps this could be the solution.

Still, this bridging of the gender gap is not happening fast enough. In the meantime, what about the interests of Yeshiva University women, particularly in the all-girls undergraduate Stern College for Women? Are the females of YU suffering budgeting and consideration consequences, due to the lack of sufficient representation from and for their gender? Ms. Blenden adamantly rejected that idea. “I think that the Board as a whole is not prejudiced or biased in favor of one school or another,” she said. “There is a man who is a Chairman of The Board at Stern! I don’t think that it has anything to do with gender.”

It was an interesting and valid point to bring up Murray Laulicht, the male Chairman of Stern’s Board of Overseers. If a man could represent women so well on that Board, why wouldn’t the 24 men on the Board of Trustees be adequate to represent the female students of the University? Blenden also added, “Everyone with whom I have spoken–and I have spoken to everyone–wants the University as a whole to succeed. And [both] undergraduate schools are the bread and butter.” However, even if men can represent women when there are only women to represent, like on the Stern Board, this does not guarantee fairness when looking at both male and female colleges in a university. A slight gender prejudice may subconsciously influence Board members in the men’s favor, causing more Board interest in the men in Yeshiva College than the women at Stern.   

Blenden did concede that being the only female in the room at Board meetings has been daunting, especially at the beginning of her association with the Board. “It would be nice to have more women, it really would,” she said.

When asked for a statement regarding the gender gap in YU’s governing body, Moshael J. Strauss, Chair of the Board of Trustees, claimed, “We will continue to focus on diversifying our Board, to further expand criteria such as age, gender, geographic location, professions and other factors so we can capitalize on different perspectives, different experiences, and different abilities. By doing so, we hope to cement YU’s position as the standard-bearer for educating and training leaders for the Jewish community and society-at-large.”

This politically correct answer was far from satisfying, but with great respect for our amazing institution and its leaders, I hope that it is true. I hope that as society advances towards gender equality, our University advances further and faster. I hope that when the time comes for a new Trustee to be selected, there are at least several women considered. I hope that one day, if we truly succeed, I can have the honor of supporting a school with a close ratio, in either direction, of male to female leaders.