Celebrating women in Jewish leadership

Few people outside our community can believe that Jewish women struggle for equality. In my years of experience, working with women in other faith groups and the wider world, there is incredulity that Jewish women, often powerful, determined, educated and leading the way in secular society, should still lag so far behind in leadership roles, within the community itself.

After 6 years of concerted, planned and structured effort, and some substantial change, we still struggle with diversity particularly (but not only) with our women and it’s time to take stock. Initiatives like the ground breaking Gender Equality Plan, in which six enthusiastic organisations committed to reviewing and changing their organisational systems and saw tangible improvements in gender balance which led Paul Anticoni, CEO of World Jewish Relief to suggest that changes take “time, commitment and adherence to good governance, practices that might not be possible or even palatable to all within our community”

This week we celebrated the achievements of Women in Jewish Leadership, initially a commission initiated by the JLC and then a project of the Board of Deputies. At a reception in London with 150 guests, and at which the NUS incoming president, Shakira Martin made her first appearance, we heard about how pressure from WJL, within a crafted and structured plan, has spearheaded interest in an age old problem.

Working alongside other communal organisations, WJL has ensured more women on Jewish boards, more women CEOs, a campaign to stop the depressing habit of All Male Panels, and the setting up of women’s networks and mentoring programmes. WJL is widely recognised as a catalyst for change across our community, creating a climate in which huge strides have been made, such as women chairing boards of United Synagogues which was, incredibly, impossible just five short years ago

We know that there are three components to change. The first is for organisations to embrace best practice in governance and develop systems which are fair for all. The second is for women to be prepared to step up, no small ask in a community where the culture and family structures are predominantly traditional. And the third, is for the issue to remain alive and focused, rather than being buried in a dusty report on a shelf.

Now, after years of campaigning and work, the movement for change will be backed by new or invigorated women and women’s organisations such as United Synagogue Women and the cross communal Association of Jewish Women’s Organizations who are determined that we move forwards not backwards. The Board of Deputies has committed to developing the next phase in the campaign and to champion the cause of equality and diversity in our community, to challenge the status quo and to bring in younger women

More women should be encouraged to stand as deputies as currently only about 30% are women in a community where over half our adults are female .

Similarly, the JLC, which initiated this project and highlighted the problem of gender equality, needs to demonstrate an improved system of ensuring a more equal representation of women on their Board. But clearly the challenge is far broader than this with, at the last measure in 2014, a pay gap of 22% between male and female CEOs of Jewish organisations.

As I end my 6 years co-chairing this project with Norma Brier OBE, and having been blessed with an army of talented, generous volunteers as partners, I offer three challenges to the community.

Firstly, the Board of Deputies, and the other organisations engaged in equalities, need a serious plan for change. Change doesn’t happened on its own and the only way forwards is through clear, measurable, actionable planning. It is up to all of us, men and women alike, to ensure in this way, that the community benefits from the skills of everyone regardless of gender.

Secondly, it is time for new and younger people to engage with the issues. Do, please climb on our shoulders – as we have been supported by the women who came before us – but don’t assume the job is done.

We need people, regardless of gender, to step up now. And thirdly, let us all celebrate rather than begrudge increases in diversity, which make our community even richer and more vibrant.

Our women, like our men, are an enormous asset, contributing a vital perspective. Let’s make certain they are seen in every part of our communal life and their voices are heard for the good, not ‘just’ of the women, but for us all.

About the Author
Laura Marks is a serial social entrepreneur who likes to focus on the common good. She founded Mitzvah Day, an international and interfaith day of social action, co-founded Nisa-Nashim, a Jewish/Muslim women’s network, and co-chairs the Alliance of Jewish Women. She chairs the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and all her work aims to make the world better and safer starting with the grass roots. Laura’s OBE was awarded for interfaith relations and in 2019 she was honoured by the Archbishop of Canterbury through his interfaith Hubert Walters Award. Laura’s family think she has a view on everything – and she does indeed love to broadcast (a regular on Radio 2 Pause for Thought) and write for the Jewish News.
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