Think back to the last panel or conference you attended, Jewish or otherwise. Do you remember any of the speakers? Were they men or women? If you don’t remember a lot of women speaking at your last conference or panel experience, there’s probably a reason: They may not have been there.
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“The pervasiveness of bias has been well-documented,” said Shifra Bronznick, the founding president of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community. “We know people have mental models about what leadership looks like. Despite all the research that proves that women are well-equipped to lead on every measure, all too often when people envision a leader, they picture a man. That’s why we need to create platforms and public venues where women showcase their talents, share their ideas and make their accomplishments visible. That’s why diversifying all-male panels is so vital.”
This issue is now getting a visibility boost from a number of blogs, one of them specifically directed at Jewish programs and organizations, that have sprung up to document such omission of women’s voices, sharing flyers and announcements that promote programs featuring only men as speakers.
April 2013 saw the arrival of Boys Clubs/100 Percent Men, a blog whose credo is “corners of the world where women have yet to tread. Shine a light. Its first post, from April 14, 2013, was a screen shot of Apple Inc.’s Executive Profiles Web page. All 10 of the executives were men. (On the company’s current page, three of Apple’s 16 executives are women.)
The May 14, 2015 Boys Clubs post — the most recent at press time — highlights global investment firm Pimco’s Global Executive Leadership. Boys Clubs light may have shone over the past two years, but subtly. The first quarter of 2015 saw the arrival of two new blogs, one general and one specific to the Jewish community, devoted to this issue.
Congrats! You’ve Got an All-Male Panel! was co-founded in February 2015 by Dr. Saara Särmä, a Finnish feminist academic activist, and artist and writer Rosa Meriläinen (who also co-founded feminist think tank Hattu with Särmä). And in March, a group of Jewish professionals took its own step into this space, creating the 100 Percent Schmucks Tumblr: “Inspired by the brilliant 100percentmen.tumblr.com, we’re calling out the Jewish patriarchy. Be better.”
Since its launch, All Male Panels has published over 100 pictures, and 90 more user submissions are waiting to be posted, “documenting all male panels, seminars, events, and various other things featuring all male experts.” Because Särmä knows that in today’s Instagram age, humor packaged visually has the greatest reach and impact, each image that is posted to illustrate the blog’s name gets an inset photo of U.S. actor David Hasselhoff of “Baywatch” fame giving the thumbs-up. “‘The Hoff’ is just simply Hoffsome,” Särmä said by way of explaining this seemingly random element. “As a kid who grew up in the ‘80s watching “Knight Rider,” I have a fondness for the Hoff.”
The Jewish question
In the Jewish community, the absence of women from public forums is complicated. In strictly Orthodox circles, there is often an understanding of gender roles that doesn’t allow for much change, and a number of customs prohibit women from public roles. But even outside religious circles, this gender gap remains obvious.
The creators of 100 Percent Schmucks operate with anonymity, maintaining that they want “to be able to call attention to the problem of all-male panels, boards, and executive teams by explicitly naming men and organizations who are part of the problem without worrying about drawing negative attention to ourselves and our current and future professional networks.”
The first post on 100 Percent Schmucks featured a flyer for an April panel at Manhattan’s Park Avenue Synagogue called “Is God a Threat to Religion?” The three speakers, well-known and -respected thinkers, hailed from different religious denominations, but were all men. “This was very much an instance of the straw that broke the camel’s back,” the authors wrote anonymously to this writer. “It was a selection of people who we felt should know better.”
One AWP program, Men as Allies, relies on those who should know better — allies who, Bronznick said, are expected to actually do something. “Men have to be willing to put skin in the game, to use the power and position they have to make change, to notice, identify, know and promote female colleagues, to move from espousing a desire to support gender equity and taking a risk to make change happen.”
When allies are requested as panel speakers, Bronznick explained, they should become “talent scouts in their field,” helping program organizers to “identify their less-visible, but equally accomplished female colleagues. This will help close the gap between the values of gender equity that everyone talks about and how they actually behave.”
“We link to AWP’s Men as Allies pledge,” the 100 Percent Schmucks team wrote, noting that they have no official relationship to AWP, “to share information about one action-oriented response, and are happy to share information and support others as we learn about them.”
Another action by a committed ally and community leader is the #AwesomeJewesses Twitter list, created by the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, Jeremy Burton. Frustrated by conference organizers who insisted that there were no high-quality women to invite as speakers, Burton created Awesome Jewesses, which he defined as “#JewessLeaders worth listening to, and having as speakers at a Jewish organization near you #FemJew.” (Note: This writer is on Burton’s Awesome Jewesses list.)
While the gender gap has been an area of activism for AWP since its founding, the conversation now has “a ripeness,” Bronznick said. “The conversation that was unleashed around [Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book] “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” gave people language for what they were actually experiencing in terms of gender bias. People came to realize if we don’t commit ourselves to taking actions that will eradicate the impact of bias, we will be stuck in a frame so narrow that it constrains us all. We have to change the culture, expand what we see and hear and increase our range of experience,” said Bronznick, adding that creating change will take the entire community.
“Women don’t need anything different from what other human beings need in order to flourish; it’s just that we don’t get what we need until we demand it. Our job is to work together with men to literally make it a routine practice for men to think about the venues they are in and to ask themselves every time: are women and other underrepresented groups being included fully. If men would take on that responsibility, the result would be a healthy environment where everyone can thrive,” Bronznick said.
The author is a Los Angeles-based writer who blogs at EstherK.com and MyUrbanKvetch.com.