Is there a glass ceiling for women in British Jewish life?

By Emma Stone, March 1, 2012

While working in the Jewish community is incredibly rewarding, it strikes me more and more, however, that when it comes to the top-tables in communal organisations women are almost invisible from view.

I know this issue has been brought to recently with regard to women on the Board of Deputies and many organisations have started to join in with the chorus promoting the idea of women putting themselves forward for more significant roles in our community.

Recently, UJS was approached by UCL student Daniel Bowman, who was interested enough in this widely reported issue to put on a women's panel event analysing whether or not there was a glass ceiling for women in British Jewry?

The concept of the glass ceiling is an interesting one. Does it matter how well educated a women is, or how much support she has in the home, or a way of reconciling any of the other major issues that have previously prevented women from contributing to Jewish communal life just as significantly as men?

It was a panel of remarkable women, Jo Wagerman, Noga Zivan, Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner and Baroness Deech, chaired by Laura Marks.

These women had managed to construct the "work-life balance" and reach significant heights, but still felt that no matter what, however archaic it may have seemed, that many women were prevented from sitting at the Jewish board room table.

I started to ask myself the question as to whether this was an issue that will continue to be a problem for my generation? And worryingly, I think the answer is "yes".

It is clear from all accounts I heard at the event that education is the key to bridging this gender gap. But according to the 2001 census, 80 per cent of Jewish women in the UK have some form of higher education qualification, as opposed to 68 per cent of the general female population in England and Wales. Given that this is the case, why is our community institutionally resistant to change?

On campus, the divisions do not seem as prominent. Half of the JSoc Presidents on the largest four campuses (Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester and Nottingham) are female. And most JSoc committees are split evenly between male and female members. So why is it that, as university ends and graduates wish to get involved in Jewish communal life, the cycle of male leadership begins?

This event shows that young men as well as women feel that this is an issue of serious concern. UJS and student leadership roles can only take one through university, but what next?

Although the discussion has changed slightly over the years and this panel event has shown that some women really can achieve the same or more than many men, there is still a significant problem of gender inequality in our community.

It is all very well sitting around and talking about these issues, signing formal letters and promoting a cause for women, but realistically, change seems to be a slow process and even slower when it comes to promoting the role of women.

Women should as students and beyond be encouraged to step into these leadership roles since they are equally capable and equally qualified. According to the Third Sector Research Centre report of 2010, women make up approximately 45 per cent of CEOs and 50 per cent of senior management positions compared with just 25 per cent of Jewish Leadership Council organisations.

UJS empowers all students to take on leadership roles, yet there have only been three female UJS Presidents in the last thirty years, this is shocking.

Perhaps the recent buzz surrounding this issue is going to start to create a mass movement within young women and men to ensure that this is not just, as it has been in the past, something of interest to discuss without any real change.

Although in Britain at large gender inequality is still prominent, the Jewish community should be an example of a section of society that leads on combating this discriminatory cultural norm.

I really hope that young women feel empowered to achieve whatever they want, but also that the Jewish community becomes receptive to allowing for a more prominent female presence within our communal organisations.

Emma Stone is the membership services officer at UJS. Follow her on Twitter here.

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Last updated: 3:45pm, March 1 2012