by Laura Marks, chair Women in Jewish Leadership (WJL)

Laura Marks has returned from a month in Israel

Laura Marks

The storm over the visit to Downing Street last week reminds me of an event I attended with my husband where Baroness Ruth Deech interviewed Alan Dershowitz. At the end there were questions and a sea of male arms shot up. Dershowitz considered and  said he wanted to hear from the women too and would take one question from a man and then one woman. After a slight gasp, women’s arms went up, as, of course, there were women with articulate intelligent questions and strong voices, eager to be heard. 

There are many examples of this lack of women’s voices in our community. At the Board of Deputies, the number of male deputies speaking vastly outnumbers the number of women – despite now having three powerful women on the platform.

When Sadiq Khan MP came to speak at the Union of Jewish Students’ conference recently, I was impressed to hear him ask specifically for women to ask questions, as, surprisingly, those waving their hands at the start were all men. We have intelligent, campaigning young women within the UJS, including the current and most recent presidents, both role models for us all. 

The campaign by the new Women’s Party in parliament reminds us that the issue about women not having a voice at leadership levels is not just a Jewish issue, but it does have a Jewish thread.

The Commission on Women in Jewish Leadership was initiated by the JLC. The findings, published in 2012, covered a range of reasons for the lack of women at the top of Jewish organisations explaining particular Jewish issues. These include a reluctance to step forward due to the demands on women in running a Jewish home; a lack of interest by many of our organisations in seeking out and promoting women; a particularly strong link between power and money; general conservatism, and, in some areas, religious practice where women feel excluded.

Women in Jewish Leadership (WJL), established in 2013, has made recommendations for change which the Board of Deputies has been helping to fund.

A delegation to Downing Street that does not include women is clearly deficient. To start with, it lacks a fully cross-communal perspective, as more than 50 percent of our community is female. In the business world, evidence shows that organisational boards that are gender-balanced and more diverse are overwhelmingly more effective. And thirdly, it is only when our daughters and, just as importantly, our sons see women as role models that they will aspire to seek equal partnership at the top table.

Finally, the Downing Street issue highlights the need to show the outside world, including government, that the Jewish community is pluralistic and lives in the modern world, not in the dark ages. 

WJL is continuing its work in promoting gender equality and the communal organisations that have been involved so far in our GEP programme have made significant changes to their structures.

But this process is slow. What is needed now is a plan which community leaders, including the JLC, agree to that would see the appointment of a number of women to their boards with equal status to their male colleagues. Women too, must be prepared to step up and not be frightened to accept the challenges.

Meanwhile, we can all engage in the issues, taking as an example All Male Panels,, or Manels as they are known in America,  which perpetuate the perception that only men have things to say. They keep appearing in our community, though forward-thinking male leaders in 2014 did agree not to take part in an event with no women speakers. We urge men to renew this pledge and we encourage everyone to demand a Jewish event needs women’s voices as well as men’s. 

We are quite clear that it is not easy to be a leader in the Jewish world, particularly a lay leader. The men who take on these positions and the few women who have done so have accepted huge responsibilities and provide exemplary service. But it is now time for some new thinking both at organisational level and by those of us who care.

Ensuring women’s voices are heard is one way in which we all can ensure women are not invisible in leadership roles. It will make a difference, slowly but surely. The alternative is to stay as we are and expect many more years of male-dominated trips to Downing Street which embarrass us all – even, probably, the men who attend.