A Woman’s Question

My heart was pounding, I was jotting notes furiously on my iPhone, and finally the moment had come – I raised my hand to ask for the mic – and that was BEFORE I ever asked the following question – first to Yossi Vardi and then again to President Peres:

“Currently 15% of the population in leadership roles in high-tech and government are women – what can Israel do to encourage and support more women stepping into leadership roles.”

And there it was – at the ripe “old age” of 35 I asked the first public question in my entire life in a forum setting. Nothing like starting with the President of Israel. 

This might come as a surprise to most people who know me, but I am terrified of speaking in public. My choice to do it anyway, to move past my fear, is a choice and challenge I have struggled with my entire life as I have taken on leadership roles. But for all of those things I could prepare, and be prepared, by people who believed in me. The public question was up for critical judgment by the crowd – and on a topic I believe to have been the semi-white elephant in the proverbial conference room.

As session upon session at the President’s Conference dealt in the heavy matters of geo-politics, economics, medicine and the future of the Jewish people, few had even close to a moderate amount of female representation. When the numbers came to even 2-3 women on a panel- it was because one of the women was the moderator (and clearly selected based on gender many times more than on the basis of skills in moderating). With more than 50% of the earth’s population comprised of women, not one single topic focused on the roles of women, their health or their contribution to humanity. And in the paraphrased words of the President – “most of the people who are on my staff are women.”

And yet, even the President – a man I consider to be as visionary a leader as we have – did not see the irony of his answer.

When are we going to change?

I believe that the first step lies somewhere in the beginning of this blog – stepping up to the fear, preparing for it, and getting over it. It is well known that women prefer to work on problems, rather than calling them out (and calling attention to ourselves in the process).  The number of editorials written by women in the media is only 10-20%. After the blogging session with President Peres, a few women came up to me to compliment me – one specifically saying she “wished” she could have asked a question, but was too nervous to stand up. When I told her that I was terrified, that my heart was pounding, but I did it anyway, what I hope is that it will give her the confidence to stand up and be heard the next time – no matter what she is feeling.

The second step requires society (and conference committees) to change. Not necessarily in their make-up – as I have sat on many conference committees that are predominantly made up of women. But rather, committees need to affirm their commitment to gender balance by looking for and cultivating new female speakers to invite to present. Opening up this process by asking for submissions/nominations from the public could, potentially, bring new names to the forefront. Looking deeper could bring the discovery that a woman is doing fascinating work or research, but has never been noticed as a potential speaker because she hasn’t taken the time to market herself as such. It is incumbent upon those who create programs to cultivate, as much as to identify talent, if we are to make a significant change.

In a rather timely article published today in the Atlantic “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”, Anne-Marie Slaughter says that many women eventually have to make choices between work and family, and how, many times, the she will choose the family, and thus a women’s trajectory up the career ladder is challenged. She writes “I continually push the young women in my classes to speak more. They must gain the confidence to value their own insights and questions, and to present them readily. My husband agrees, but he actually tries to get the young men in his classes to act more like the women—to speak less and listen more. If women are ever to achieve real equality as leaders, then we have to stop accepting male behavior and male choices as the default and the ideal. We must insist on changing social policies and bending career tracks to accommodate our choices, too. We have the power to do it if we decide to, and we have many men standing beside us.”

I call upon us all, men and women within Israel and the Jewish community, to take upon the very weighty task of making sure that we seek out women’s voices – and where they aren’t readily available or visible, we search for them and cultivate them into the talented leaders we can become.

About the Author
Marni Mandell CEO & Co-Founder of CareHood, public speaking coach and mentor to startups and speaker herself. She made aliyah in 2010, and has spent 20 years working in the Jewish community and hi-tech.