Letting women cross the finish line
In the U.K. we have a problem: More than twice as many men as women fill the top posts in our communal organizations and institutions.
As athletes worldwide gear up for the first British Olympic Games for 64 years, the Jewish women of the United Kingdom are lining up to overcome their own particular hurdle - and they have shed no shortage of sweat and tears in the process.
It isn't the taking part that counts. This issue is about reaching the finish line - in this case, the boardroom, because in the UK we have a problem: More than twice as many men as women fill the top posts in our communal organizations and institutions.
Last year, the UK's Jewish Leadership Council, which represents the largest organizations in the Jewish communal world here, set up the Commission on Women in Jewish Leadership to examine the gender imbalance and to put forward concrete proposals for change.
To put this in context, British Jewish women are among the most-educated, talented and highest-achieving people in the country today. The last national census, which is undertaken every ten years by the government, found that 80 percent of Jewish women in the UK have some form of university degree as opposed to 68 percent of the general female population in England and Wales. In commenting on those numbers, a report issued in 2007 by the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research noted that, "The extraordinary economic success of Jews in Britain at the end of the 20th century is highlighted when the achievements of Jewish women in the workplace are compared with those of men in the British Jewish population at large ... In the top occupational categories, Jewish women matched, and in most cases proportionally out-represented, men in the general population."
Compare this with the leadership of our communal infrastructure. Between them, the 23 JLC member organizations have 54 chairs, vice presidents and CEOs. Of these, a mere seven are women, equivalent to just under 13 percent of the total - as compared, in the secular charitable world, to a comparable figure of well over 40 percent.
We know, both anecdotally and statistically, that the UK's Jewish women are involved in all areas of communal life - you could even say that we are the skeleton that keeps the body upright. But it turns out that, as women move up the leadership ranks - particularly in the larger organizations - their numbers drop off.
A survey carried out by the CWJL showed that across almost all sectors, there are far more women holding the position of sub-committee chair - typically a "hands-on" coordinating role - than men. By contrast, men were more likely to hold the influential, decision-making posts of organizational chair, vice chair, trustee or governor. In other words, the more senior the role, the more the women simply fall away. This difference was most pronounced in synagogue bodies and welfare organizations. The only sector to show gender parity was that of arts and cultural organizations.
During the period of the Commission's investigation, organizations repeatedly told us that they "choose the best person for the job," and that they are "gender blind." Given what we know about British Jewish women, why on earth is it that "the best person" in Jewish organizations is hardly ever a woman? This is a lamentable and indefensible state of affairs.
However, in the commission, we recognized that the problem isn't just with the organizations - it's about the women themselves. Why aren't they asking for the roles?
We set up groups to look at leadership development, network building, governance and equality issues and communications. We held open meetings in London and Manchester to enable as many people as possible (women and men ) to share different perspectives on women's leadership in the community. We carried out a nationwide questionnaire, and held focus groups and one-to-one interviews to record the views of women.
Last month, we published our recommendations. The fact that they were approved by the JLC and other communal leaders marks what we hope will constitute a turning point for our community. Central to the proposals is the establishment of an equality support group to oversee progress by the main organizations in achieving gender equality and to administer an award for improvement in this area. A training module to raise awareness, skills-development courses for women, networking schemes and mentoring pilot programs are also among the recommendations.
Doing the research and publishing a document is undoubtedly the easy part, when compared with the task that lies ahead. The UK's Jewish community has been doing things a certain way since Oliver Cromwell allowed us to return in 1656. Change won't come easily - but change we must.
One thing is for sure: This isn't just a women's issue. This is about Jewish continuity and long-term sustainability. The British Jewish community is tiny: We number fewer than 270,000 people. Our organizations need our women. They need our unique skills and our different approach, they need to represent and reach out to women and they need us to feel connected. They need us for long-term success. Jewish women continue, in most cases, to lead the parenting and are key role models.
How can we expect the next generation of girls, and indeed boys, to support our institutions and community whole-heartedly when our women are excluded? I sincerely hope that we won't have to find out.
Laura Marks is chair of the Commission on Women in Jewish Leadership, senior vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the founder of Mitzvah Day UK.