Don’t drown in Maggie’s wake

By Laura Marks, April 21, 2013
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It is more than 30 years since Margaret Thatcher became our first female prime minister, trailblazing the way for women, changing the rules and smashing the glass ceiling. Although we don't buy that for a moment, it is worth considering what this formidable leader really did for women and what we as a Jewish community can learn.

Today, fewer than 10 per cent of independent nations are led by women. Only 22 per cent of MPs and 15 per cent of seats on boards of FTSE 100 companies are taken by women. In the Jewish world, the situation is even worse; women fill just 13 per cent of top leadership roles. What has gone wrong and why haven't the expectations of Women's Lib, bra burning feminism and the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, filtered through to our community, well over a quarter of a century later?

Barriers are multiplied in the Jewish world

In 1970, Margaret Thatcher, MP for Finchley, was co-chair of the Women's National Commission. Beyond that, it's hard to find any evidence of Thatcher aligning herself with the women's cause. Her view was that "the battle for women's rights has largely been won". As she said: "I hate those strident tones we hear from some Women's Libbers".

While the number of women MPs rose from 27 to 43 in the Thatcher years, she appointed just one woman to cabinet. While her pool of choice may have been limited, the women who made it to MP were presumably determined and talented. Certainly, the issue of "positive discrimination" is fraught and we shouldn't be promoting anyone with lesser skills. But where there is an equal choice, why not give the under-represented group a voice to offer a different view?

By all accounts, Thatcher had an adoring and supportive husband. We laugh about Denis but, as Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook asserts in her book, Lean In, "I don't know of one woman in a leadership position, whose partner is not fully, and I mean fully, supportive of her career. No exceptions". In the Jewish world, our expectations of women at home are unforgiving.

Jo Wagerman, the only woman president of the Board of Deputies, knew she was the sole honorary officer rushing home at the end of a week of Jewish politics to cook the Friday-night chicken.

We have a deeply held expectation that our women should carry the domestic load. American research shows that, when a husband and wife are employed full time, she does 40 per cent more childcare and 30 per cent more housework. How much more so in Jewish homes? "It's not about biology," says Gloria Steinem. "It's about consciousness."

On occasion, Thatcher used her gender to further her cause. In a famous speech of 1976, she turned the tables on her critics: "I stand before you tonight in my green chiffon evening gown, my face softly made up, my fair hair gently waved. The Iron Lady of the Western World? Me?" But who could blame her? After all, she was constantly pilloried in a manner wholly reserved for women. "Attila the hen" (Clement Freud), "Shrill and hectoring" (Peter Mandelson), "What does she want, this housewife, my balls on a tray?" (President Chirac) and "She is a bitch, she's tough… and cannot lead" (Chancellor Schmidt). The term "handbagging", while superbly descriptive, stayed with her for life.

Today, such sexism is toned down but how many times have I heard women in Jewish organisations labelled "hysterical" or "overly emotional" or indeed, heard derogatory comments made about their hair, clothes or even their hat? Such behaviour is too often tolerated, half-a-century after Thatcher fought it.

Thatcher was a role model, but not a campaigner. She showed that a sufficiently determined and talented woman could get to the top but, disappointingly, she abdicated responsibility for the women following behind. Disturbingly, many of the barriers she faced still exist, multiplied in the Jewish world. As we set up Women in Jewish Leadership to bring about change, with the support of the Board of Deputies and the JLC, we invite men and women to join us.

We must be active in demanding variety and diversity in our leaders for, as Thatcher recognised in 1979, "The women of this country have never had a prime minister who knew the things they know. And the things that we know are very different from what men know."

Laura Marks is chair of Women in Jewish Leadership

Last updated: 10:45am, April 21 2013