Fight for equality
Why women must become leaders
THE RECENT furore over the number of women present —or rather, not present — at the Jewish Leadership Council’s annual meeting with the Prime Minister has raised many important questions. As the JLC’s Head of Policy and Research, I have led the preparation for this meeting multiple times and so have keenly followed the coverage surrounding it. Critics of the meeting, while undoubtedly well-intentioned, have missed the point.
Those upset about the gender balance at the meeting are right to be. But the knee-jerk criticism of the JLC that ensued has detracted from the real problem, and prevented an important debate from emerging on this subject.
The poor ratio of women to men is a reflection of the community’s leadership as a whole, not that of the JLC, an organisation that represents its members. Indeed, it was the JLC that undertook an extensive study in 2012 to examine this very issue only to discover that the Jewish community is not out of sync from where society is as a whole, but simply demonstrates its own idiosyncrasies. Reform is needed all round.
If we want more talented women to step up, we need to look at what’s holding them back. As a community, we should be mentoring aspiring female communal leaders, both lay and professional. The lead ‘‘Envision’’ programme — which I participated in — brought together female communal professionals to learn new skills and overcome work challenges. Meeting other women working in the community and discussing the challenges we face was hugely beneficial. Learning how to fund-raise, speak in public, or network, as well as being encouraged and supported to find a mentor, actually added value and helped boost work confidence.
In recent comments, Laura Marks referenced two events at which the (male) speaker had to prompt the women in the audience to ask questions. As she rightly points out, there are articulate and intelligent women waiting to be heard. Why not use our collective energy to promote or create programmes which help women to gain confidence in intimidating situations?
I’m fortunate to have had tremendous support from my Chairman and my CEO while on maternity leave. They have encouraged me to come back with all the flexibility I require. Sadly, this is not always the case, so if we want to see women thrive in the Jewish communal workplace, this is one of the issues that must be addressed.
I have yet to find a communal organisation offering more than statutory maternity pay, for example. I would like to see a crèche for communal professionals with young children — usually women, despite welcome developments in shared responsibilities. These are primarily solutions for professional rather than lay leadership gender imbalances, but change in one area will help spur it in the other.
Unfortunately, too often, those bemoaning the lack of women at the top table of Jewish communal leadership are guilty of eschewing policy suggestions for easy headlines. This newspaper is not immune from criticism on this point. By listing all the female board members on the JLC’s member organisations who could have been sent ‘‘instead’’, it has fallen foul of the trap of suggesting that women merely need to show up in order to be considered worthy of attending one of the most important meetings of the year. We wouldn’t accept such a standard for men — and indeed the inclusion of certain attendees was picked over in the media — so why would we do so for women without understanding what role each of these very talented people perform on their respective boards?
I can think of examples where under-qualified women have been catapulted into senior positions because it was the “right thing to do” in order to address under-representation. This does not propel women; rather it sets them up to fail, perpetuating the myth that women are not up to the job. Women, like men, should be hired on merit.
Ultimately, if women are to lead, we need to implement real policies rather than making token gestures. As with all lasting and successful change, we need reform, not revolution. If the debate around the Prime Minister’s meeting can spur this process, then it will have been worth having.
Biased: a recent meeting with the Prime Minister led many to suggest the JLC needs reform