Women still face barriers in the workplace – but help and inspiration are at hand

Marie van der Zyl
Marie van der Zyl

Looking at our own British Jewish community, there is a lot to be proud of.

We see highly successful women in senior leadership roles right across the community. Marie van der Zyl is in her second term as President of the Board of Deputies, while the Jewish Leadership Council is headed by Claudia Mendoza and Michelle Janes, who job-share the role of CEO.

Women rabbis hold senior pulpits and positions across the Progressive movements, including Rabbi Charley Baginsky as the CEO of Liberal Judaism. And changes are happening within Orthodoxy too – including the recent news that Miriam Lorie is to be the ‘rabbi in training’ at partnership minyan Kehillat Nashira.

In our communal charities, female leaders and CEOs have gone from the exception to the norm – among them Dr Beverley Jacobson at Norwood, Naomi Dixon at Jewish Women’s Aid, Lisa Steele at Chai Cancer Care and Lisa Wimborne at Jewish Blind & Disabled. That there are too many others to list here shows how much things have changed.

The most welcome aspect is that appointments which were once described as ‘firsts’ or even ‘history making’ are now nothing out of the ordinary.

However, as my team and I know from our day-to-day conversations with clients at Work Avenue, in the world of work and business there are still a number of barriers that need to be broken down.

Many women we speak to face obstacles, both real and perceived, when it comes to finding work, climbing the career ladder or starting a business. Obstacles that aren’t always there for men.

Despite the pandemic bringing us home and flexible working, which many felt narrowed the playing field between genders, there is now a sense that the return to offices will see it widen once again.

Bank of England policymaker Catherine Mann has warned that some employees returning to offices while others continue to work from home will create “the potential for two tracks”, arguing that it will largely be men on the physical track, who will then do better than the women on the virtual one.

This was backed up by a study from Aviva which found that the return to the office could deepen the gender divide, reporting that those with primary care roles for children or elderly relatives – which is most often women – are feeling under increasing strain.

In the Jewish community, having that primary care role can also add further stresses – such as being unable to travel to a work place on Fridays, due to the need to collect the kids from Jewish schools with early pick-ups and/or prepare for Shabbat.

Then there are the barriers that have always existed. Through more than 15 years of working with members of the Jewish community, of all ages and backgrounds, our team have identified a number of hurdles that seem to disproportionally affect our female clients.

These include issues around confidence and self-esteem, a fear of the unknown, a nagging doubt that “I’m not ready” and a constant feeling of being torn between home and working lives.

It’s why we hold an annual Women in the Workplace conference (https://theworkavenue.org.uk/wiw22/), to tie in with International Women’s Day.

It features a range of successful female business leaders and entrepreneurs, who inspire through the stories of both their achievements and their challenges.

As every year passes, we see more and more highly successful Jewish women in the worlds of work and business.

But we also know that many others still struggle with these barriers. The good news is that help and inspiration are always at hand.


About the Author
David Arden is the CEO of Work Avenue. He has a background in project management, business change and delivering strategy and has held roles in the public, private and not for profit sectors. 
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