You’ve come a long way, baby? Not if you’re a Jewish woman in the UK

Amid dire statistics on the status of women in British Jewish leadership roles, one of the few has come up with a new plan of action

CWJL Report Launch. (photo credit: Courtesy)
CWJL Report Launch. (photo credit: Courtesy)

LONDON — The figures look bleak for women aspiring to leadership in the British Jewish community. Women account for less than a quarter of paid senior managers of the largest community organizations. They also take far less senior lay leadership positions than men, making up less than a third of the members of the Board of Deputies, Anglo-Jewry’s main representative organisation, in the last three years. Even the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), which could reasonably have been expected to be at the forefront of gender equality, has only elected three female presidents over the last three decades.

Now a new commission has come up with an action plan for the community, which it hopes will effect real change. It is a tall order: similar reports, such as the British Chief Rabbi’s 1994 review of women’s roles in the community, were effectively buried, as was a follow-up a decade-and-a-half later. But chair of the Commission on Women in Jewish Leadership (CWJL), Laura Marks, is hopeful this will not happen this time.

Chair of the Commission on Women in Jewish Leadership (CWJL), Laura Marks. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Chair of the Commission on Women in Jewish Leadership (CWJL), Laura Marks. (photo credit: Courtesy)

“We set up a commission, but it became a movement,” she says. “So many commissions operate without other people even knowing they are happening. Others generate interest in their topic. That’s what we have done, deliberately. We didn’t just to out to find out what opinions were, but to galvanize opinions behind change. This is not the end of the process but the beginning.”

‘This is not the end of the process but the beginning’

The commission was conceived about 18 months ago by the Jewish Leadership Council, an umbrella organization whose own members report that just 20 per cent of their trustees are women. In its report this week, it identified nine separate factors which make it hard for women to achieve leadership positions, including women not feeling valued in male-dominated organizations; women being unaware of leadership opportunities; work-life balance issues; the link between money and leadership, with donors, who tend to be men, often taking up leadership positions; lack of confidence in Jewish settings; halachic barriers; and lack of organizational commitment to gender equality.

Many of these problems, Marks concedes, are equally true for men, and for other groups as well.

“We could equally have written a report about the problems getting men to volunteer, or young people, or people outside London, or about rabbinic leadership, but that was not our remit,” she says. “It’s true that the system in general has to change.

“But certain of these factors are fundamentally about women, such as the feeling that organizations just don’t care about women. They tend to ask women to volunteer at a kiddush instead of asking them to get involved in big governance issues. Women are also busier than men, and they are after a specific job. If you say, we need a lawyer to deal with specific issues they might say yes, but if you ask for a general commitment, they become scared of too many evenings spent with men sitting around talking. They are not being asked in the right way.”

She is adamant that this is not a generational issue, citing the small number of women chairs of the students’ union over the past three decades.

‘If we lose the female role models who are bringing up our children, if the women are becoming disillusioned and not telling the children that it is so important to support the community, how will we bring up the children to care about it?’

“It is cultural and institutional. Things are changing, but the Davies Report” — a 2011 investigation into women and boards of management in large corporations — “said that if left to our own devices it would take 100 years. In the Jewish community we can’t afford to wait because the community is so small. If we lose the female role models who are bringing up our children, if the women are becoming disillusioned and not telling the children that it is so important to support the community, how will we bring up the children to care about it?”

There are, however, differences between denominations. One major issue often cited as a barrier to women leaders is the ban on women acting as synagogue chairmen in the United Synagogue, an organization which runs most mainstream Orthodox synagogues in London. As a cross-communal commission, Marks says that they took a deliberate decision not to make recommendations along denominational lines, and that such issues are best dealt within denominational groups.

However, she adds that there are also barriers to leadership among more secularized parts of the community. She speculates that their young women may be less inclined to work for Jewish organizations (one of the pulls for traditional women, she says, is that Jewish organizations can accommodate their religious needs). Therefore, they “may be less aware of both the needs and opportunities in the Jewish world,” even though, conversely, they may have stronger senior female role models working in the community, such as rabbis.

Overall, she says, she suspects that the situation in Anglo-Jewry is “possibly a bit worse” than among American Jewry, “but remarkably, we have very similar issues.”

In fact, a 2011 study conducted by The Forward showed that among 76 major communal organizations, only nine were led by women. There are currently only two female heads of Federations in North America.

The British Jewish community is also roughly similar to other faith communities in the UK. But these almost uniformly lag behind mainstream society. According to a 2011 report from the Equality and Human Right Commission, 48 percent of professional leaders of registered charities are women.

The CWJL made a series of recommendations to help increase the number of women holding top professional and lay posts in Jewish organizations. To drive results, different organizations will take ownership of different areas to steward them to fruition, and a group of lay leaders will be created to oversee progress. There will also be an award scheme that will recognize Jewish community organizations that make progress on issues such as recruitment policies and accommodating the challenges faced by women in the workplace.

‘It is crucial that the organizations themselves put measures into place and if you’re not specific, it won’t happen’

“It is crucial that the organizations themselves put measures into place and if you’re not specific, it won’t happen,” says Marks.

Other recommendations include incorporating a training model on gender issues into existing community leadership programs, and the introduction of a skills training course for communal professionals that will address fundraising, negotiation, confidence building and advocacy – skills many women may lack.

One key element will be to set up mentoring programs for women working in community organizations and the establishment of several women’s networking groups.

“Women need to support women, which is something they are not good enough at,” says Marks. “If you are looking to break through, you need other women to help you, we need to pull each other up the next rung. We can only do it together.”

Marks says she knows this from personal experience. She made her name in the community as the founder of Mitzvah Day, an annual event where people around the world are asked to volunteer. She credits her own success in the Jewish world to a combination of going to a girls-only school; a professional mother; and experience working in advertising and marketing in the non-Jewish world. Another key factor, she says, was encouragement.

In May, she was voted in as senior vice president of the Board of Deputies, the representative organization, even though she had only been a representative in the organization for four months. At the same time, she says, there appears to be an increase in the number of female members elected to the Board (the full count is not yet in).

This was no coincidence. Before the elections, a group of women had got together to encourage other women to stand for positions.

“This was not positive discrimination – the rules were not changed, there were no barriers removed. The climate had simply changed.”

Marks concedes that for the larger community, change will come slowly, saying that the commission deliberately chose to forego more radical recommendations such as quotas for women in communal organizations, even though research showed there was a certain demand for this.

“We recognize that this is a conservative community and things do move slowly. Our recommendations were crafted to try and ensure it’s workable.”

So how long until there is a change in female leadership in the UK community?

“It depends on how you measure change. How long will it be until 50 percent of our leadership is women? It might be a very long time. How long until we see measurable change in the Jewish community? I hope, 18 months.”

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