OPINION: Why is the Jewish community resistant to gender equality?

OPINION: Why is the Jewish community resistant to gender equality?

World Jewish Relief Business Breakfast at Quaglinos

By Paul Anticoni, Chief Executive, World Jewish Relief

I know what it’s like to be the only man in the house. The fight for the bathroom. The choice of evening television. My wife and daughters outnumber me. I accept that. In my professional life, though, I am rarely the only man round a table. The Jewish community is extraordinarily – and wrongly – dominated by men.

Two years ago, I was asked to get involved with the Commission on Women in Jewish Leadership. As the chief executive of a large Jewish NGO, I was delighted to say yes. I ended up being the only man at the table.

My experience was eye-opening. On a personal level, it has formed part of my own learning, as I heard about the barriers that prevent women from reaching the top of Jewish communal organisations.

Jewish women are among the UK’s highest educational and professional achievers, yet there remains a stark gender imbalance at the top of our community.

Men dominate the boardrooms and corner offices of FTSE 100 companies, too.

There, however, recent research has highlighted that some progress is being made, albeit slowly. Why is the Jewish community resistant to this change? The answer to this question is not simple, but it matters: we must seek out gender balance wherever possible because the Jewish community is missing out on a huge pool of talented individuals.

Given our modest numbers, this is a failing we can ill afford.

Although I’m proud to have recently added extremely talented women to my senior leadership team, I know we can and must do more.

To help us achieve this, World Jewish Relief volunteered to be one of the pilot organisations for the Gender Equality Plan, launched by the Board of Deputies two weeks ago.

It’s not always easy turning the spotlight on yourself. It is much easier to look out and see the challenges others face rather than reflect honestly on your own progress. I wanted to get involved – and I hope this initiative will receive wide support – because it’s simply the right thing to do to.

Our community must ensure better opportunities for the many passionate and expert women who could and should lead our community. It is our responsibility to correct the imbalance. To do otherwise would be shooting ourselves in the foot.

Surely we all agree that we want the brightest and best people leading our organisations, so why do they not always apply?

The Gender Equality Plan is looking at mechanisms organisations can use to make sure that women have an equal chance to put themselves forward for roles. This includes at board level, where women are often put off applying.

There are those, I know, who don’t believe that a problem exists.

I’ve heard the arguments against. “It should be a meritocracy!” said one person. “If women are good enough, they’ll get the job!” said another. Of course there should be a meritocracy. But what these arguments fail to acknowledge, however, is that the current system is not a meritocracy.

If you accept that women are just as capable as men at leading an organisation, how else can you explain the lack of women at the top? “Because women want a family!” I was told. This desire is not unique to women. I am lucky enough to have a family.

What the Jewish community must address is that the system is much better at welcoming men back to work after having a baby than women.

Speaking out on this issue as a man can sometimes gain more publicity than when a woman does. And while I believe tackling the gender imbalance is a ‘community issue’, not a ‘women’s issue’, I also know that I must be careful with the privilege I’m given.

However passionate I might be about this, I can never speak on behalf of women.

Although I have learned much from sitting and listening to women share their experiences, I cannot pretend to have lived their lives. Indeed, as the CEO of one of the largest organisations in our community, discrimination has not held me back.

Nevertheless, World Jewish Relief and I are delighted to be part of the Gender Equality Plan pilot. We will share our experiences – and learning – with the community as we go through the pilot programme.

It might mean more meetings for me, but I’ll be pleased to be the only man attending.

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