Tznius or parnasa? Businesses buy ads showing male workers, but no women

In professions that work on commission, activists say excluding women’s pictures is particularly harmful

Ad for Ark Mortgage in Mishpacha Magazine

May 19, 2024 10:20 AM


Haredi media outlets’ longstanding practice of not publishing images of women is raising questions about workplace equality after a review by Shtetl found that recent advertisements for finance, insurance, and real estate companies pictured male workers, but no women.

In a stark example of this trend, MassMutual Brooklyn, an agency affiliated with Fortune 500 life insurance company MassMutual, published an ad in the Haredi magazines Ami and Mishpacha picturing 75 mostly Haredi-looking men, but not a single woman.

Because of the commission-based pay that real estate and insurance brokers earn, publicity and facial and name recognition are crucial. MassMutual Brooklyn, helps insurance agents contract with the national company to sell life insurance to local community members. Its website shows that the company does appear to employ and train female workers, but while almost all male workers listed on the website are pictured, the female workers are all represented by a short-haired blue avatar with no facial features. At other MassMutual agencies, such as MassMutual Flushing, women and men are both pictured on the website.

MassMutual ad in Mishpacha Magazine

Daphne Lazar Price, the executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, opposes Haredi media outlets’ policy of not publishing images of women. In this case, she believes the policy can give men an unfair advantage and disadvantage women’s careers.

“When it comes to best business practices, a quality headshot is key, as it provides a first impression, public face, and brand indicator for the consumer,” Lazar Price told Shtetl. “It is used as a tool to create and elevate one’s professional identity, and to make oneself visible and recognizable.”

Aaron Klein, the general agent of MassMutual Brooklyn, the company that bought the ad, said all of the women “chose not to participate in this advertising effort.” Paula Tremblay, a spokesperson for the national company, said that “MassMutual is committed to being a diverse, equitable and inclusive company.” Neither Klein nor Tremblay responded to questions about how the choice was presented to the women and what the company would have done if the woman asked to be pictured, given the magazines’ policies prohibiting it. None of the women responded to emails from Shtetl.

“Maybe I can set aside my skepticism and believe that truly no woman wanted to include her headshot in this ad,” Lazar-Price said. “But if that's the case, the company could have opted to list the [workers’] names without headshots, which would have included both women and men.”

Chaya Gourarie, an expert on labor and employment law, who grew up Hasidic and works with Haredi clients, said she found the image of the MassMutual Brooklyn advertisement striking.

“It’s pretty outrageous when you look at it,” she told Shtetl.

It’s not illegal not to publish pictures of women, Gourarie said. But if at least one woman in a particular work setting believes that the lack of visibility has harmed her career, she could have a strong legal case.

Newspapers and magazines from many segments of the Haredi community, do not publish any images of women, a measure some say is meant to comply with Jewish laws about modesty. Sometimes women’s absence seems natural, such as in ads about boys-only schools or men’s health, and other times, their absence is conspicuous.

In one prominent example, the Hasidic newspaper Di Tzeitung ignited a fury after it published an edited version of the iconic photo of President Barack Obama and his cabinet in the White House Situation Room during the 2011 raid on Osama bin Ladin’s hideout. The two women in the room, including then-Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, were edited out of the photo, leaving only men visible. The blog Failed Messiah was first to draw attention to the edited picture. Female Haredi candidates have struggled to get the word out about their candidacy because Haredi magazines wouldn’t publish their pictures as they do for male candidates.

But an analysis by Shtetl found that the practice extends well beyond editorial and political content to commercial advertisements where male employees are pictured while their female counterparts, including those who provide the same services, are excluded, potentially hurting them economically.

In recent editions of Ami and Mishpacha, the MassMutual Brooklyn ad was far from the only one that only featured men.

Left: Brooklyn NY Life ad. Right: Brooklyn NY Life website.

In an ad for a Brooklyn agency affiliated with New York Life Insurance Company, photos of four male partners were shown. A woman, Schemia Rowan, who is listed along with her headshot on the company’s website as also being a partner, is not pictured in the magazine. Reached by Shtetl, New York Life spokesperson Kevin Maher said that “Rowan is no longer a Partner” and “some technical issues on our end have resulted in a delayed update to the website.” Rowan is still listed as of publication, a week later.

Skyrock Mortgage. Left: ad. Right: website

Skyrock Mortgage, a company whose website lists five male loan officers and one female loan officer, published an ad featuring every single male loan officer, but not Julie Swartz, the sole female in that position. Reached by Shtetl, Skyrock CEO Mark Rokowsky said “I only included in the Ad the loan officers who are covering that specific area. Julie covers other areas for the company and she was indeed included in the ads placed in her specific areas.” He added that “gender does not play a role in her assignment.”

Swartz herself defended her employer, telling Shtetl she found the idea that she might be discriminated against “offensive.” “I’ve dedicated 20 years of my career to my employer, and it’s been the most fulfilling job I’ve ever had,” she wrote. “In my experience, this company stands out as one of the most fair and supportive employers in the United States.”

Neither Ami nor Mishpacha responded to emails from Shtetl requesting comment.

Gourarie, the attorney, said sex discrimination in the workplace, is illegal under the New York State Human Rights Law, New York City Human Rights Law, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. State and federal law also require employers to provide equal pay for equal work.

“If women are not featured then they’re not visible, and by being less visible, that's going to hurt them professionally,” Gourarie said.

Data about Haredi women’s representation in the finance, real estate, and insurance industries is hard to find, but Census data about a Haredi enclave like Borough Park suggests that women are underrepresented in these industries compared to the nation at large. In ZIP code 11219, which encompasses much of Borough Park, Census data estimates that around 68% of residents who work in finance, insurance, and real estate are men; meanwhile, in the country as a whole, the industry is dominated by women.

Metropolitan Commercial Bank ad

US Bank and Metropolitan Commercial Bank, which also published ads featuring only men, did not respond to emails from Shtetl inquiring whether they employ female agents in these neighborhoods and what went into the decision to place ads with only males.

Ark Mortgage ad.

Ark Mortgage, a Haredi-owned company, placed an ad with the names and faces of two dozen male advisors. At the time, its website, which does not include headshots on the ‘our team’ page, listed twenty five advisors with male-sounding names. It didn’t respond to Shtetl’s inquiry about its hiring practices, but days later, an advisor with a female-sounding name appeared on the list.

Read more in Shtetl:
Haredi children’s magazine blurs image of Nikki Haley
Nonprofit apologizes after calling photos in woman’s cookbook inappropriate
Ruchie Freier becomes first Hasidic woman nominated to New York State Supreme Court
For a fee, a new institute will offer rabbinic workplace consulting and a compliance certificate