A woman’s place on the dais

I was at a family wedding last week. On my father’s side, my six cousins and I have 17 children between us, of whom 13 have been brought up as Jews, three have attended Jewish day schools, seven went to cheder, six went on Israel tour and one has completed Taglit/Birthright. Every single one of the 17 would be an asset to our community in the long term – if they choose to stay involved. The trouble is, it’s a big ‘if’. Five of them are girls and the Jewish community is ‘hemorrhaging’ women.

At a leadership level in particular, women are few and far between. I am one of only five women who have ever sat at the top table of the Board of Deputies (there are five honorary officer roles) in all its 253 years with only one, Jo Wagerman OBE, making it to President. Similarly, the Jewish Leadership Council (representing the lay leaders of our communal organisations) has twelve trustees, all men. Women in Jewish Leadership (WJL), which I co-chair with Norma Brier OBE, was established, and funded by the Board and the JLC, to drive change.

I am the proud mum of three teenagers, two boys and a girl, all currently engaged in Jewish life. Like their cousins, they have a world of choices ahead of them. Speaking as a full-time, obsessive community-builder, the British Jewish community that I want to leave must be one where all these young people feel a sense of engagement, of pride and indeed of responsibility. In a small community like ours, of under 300,000 bodies, we can’t leave anything to chance. Even one young person who leaves us is one too many.

Inclusiveness must be our starting point. Without doubt, every one of us, regardless of where we live, what we earn, our religious affiliation, our sexual orientation, disability – or indeed our gender – has a role to play. We simply cannot afford to think otherwise. Whilst equality laws are in place to ensure social justice, the UK Jewish community must view it as an even more urgent issue: one of survival. Our diversity must be our strength and our differences have to provide the texture of our community.

So how did this take me, and the newly established WJL initiative, to set up a campaign to challenge the phenomenon of all male panels?

When I joined the Board of Deputies of British Jews early last year, there were no women at the top table. On the platform at our monthly plenary sessions sat a row of Men in Suits: the President, four Honorary Officers, the CEO and the head of the Constitution Committee. As they stared down at the assembled elected deputies and conducting meetings, I felt like an outsider – different, a minority, unrepresented, excluded. Of course, the homogeneity isn’t confined to gender – the men on the top table were similar in other ways too – but the maleness hit me like an impenetrable wall.

It’s not about being at the top table for its own sake –it’s about moving to a ‘fairer’ agenda. In her book ‘Gender’, the Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell categorizes men’s advantages as ‘authority, respect, service, safety, housing, access to institutional power, emotional support and control over one’s own life’. Gender based levels of pay, working conditions and family friendly policies are generally low on the corporate agenda and are unlikely to move up without some strong champions. Whilst we certainly have many men in our community who feel the need for change as strongly as their female counterparts, the drive for change is more likely to come from women in authority. The role of WJL is to support and empower women to move into positions where they contribute fully to our community. Panels are just one highly visible manifestation of the problem.

When British Jews gather in front of speaker panels to hear debate, they are being educated, and deciding whether or not to get involved in a cause. Should we not ensure that the people they see on the platform actually represent all the diverse elements of our community?. We need female voices as part of the mix. We need women, supported by men, to challenge prejudice, to help other women up the ladder, to act as role models, to change the agenda and to help us move to a truly inclusive community.

We know from research in the USA, where an even more forceful communal Male Panels campaign is leading the way, that organisations with a diversity of leadership voices tend to be more effective in business. The Jewish community cannot replicate these extensive studies but we can learn from them. We need to start by listening to women – and other underrepresented groups – and to include them in decision making. Women need to be heard in public in order to achieve this change.

So will the campaign make a difference and can our community become more inclusive? I believe that it will: as my daughter sets up her first panel for her school’s Jewish Society and scours the lists for female speakers, I know there will be at least one woman on her panel, the chair: young and determined but needing support from the whole community, men and women alike.

About the Author
Laura Marks is the founder and chair of Mitzvah Day, an international charity which works to alleviate poverty, to support the environment and to bring a little kindness all through active, hands on projects on Mitzvah Day. At the heart of Mitzvah Day is a belief that if we work side by side with our neighbours, we will build stronger, more resilient local communities. Taking the same thinking forward, Laura launched and co-chairs, Nisa-Nashim, a new national Jewish/Muslim women’s network. She is the newly appointed chair of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust which runs a national event and also thousands of local events, bringing people together to commemorate victims of the Holocaust and also, of other genocides. Laura lives in London, has three almost grown up children and husband, TV producer Dan Patterson.