Come on, women, let's get equal

By Michele Vogel, April 1, 2010

Last month's International Women's Day helped bring to the public's attention the government's dismal record in relation to the lack of women in senior management roles. At the present rate of progress, it is anticipated that gender equality will take 60 years to achieve.

As far back as the early 1900s, Jewish women were striving to become community leaders and create gender equality. This coincided with renewed vigour for the creation of a Jewish homeland - in which men were dominating all activity.

In 1918, a group of Jewish women, many of whom were suffragettes, believing that women should have a distinctive and equal role, set about creating Wizo, an organisation which would enable women to make a significant contribution to the Jewish state.

Fast forward more than 90 years and a great deal has changed in our community. We have seen a female president of the Board of Deputies; we have female head teachers guiding the younger generation;, and we have inspirational women who engage in our community without any official positions.

Despite this noteworthy progress the Jewish community has failed to achieve gender equality in senior leadership positions. At present, just three women sit on the Jewish Leadership Council and, with a few exceptions, including the incoming chief executive of the Movement for Reform Judaism, there are no women CEOs or chairs of leading communal organisations.

This is not necessarily the case in the charedi community, where women are often the driving force, as in the Agudas Israel Housing Association and Interlink.

There are, of course, female leaders within the mainstream community heading smaller communal and grassroots organisations. However, in 2010, our objective should be to enable women to play a more equal role in all major Jewish organisations. We have many capable women within our community in business and the professions. Their voices at the most senior level could contribute alternative views and invaluable experience.

Admittedly, we have to be realistic. Women inevitably face a multitude of responsibilities that can inhibit their aspirations to take on senior communal roles. Trying to balance family life with such a role is no easy feat. It is difficult enough for any working mother without the additional pressures that go with striving to reach the top positions.

There are also the halachic challenges that religious organisations face when it comes to appointing women to leading positions. There is some progress here and the United Synagogue, for one, has been exploring the opportunities for change. Its president has been vocal in his calls for the organisations to allow women to take on key roles including trustee positions, chairs of synagogues and the opportunity to run for president. To speed up progress in this area, we need both women and men across the community to speak out in support of such initiatives.

As part of its commitment to empower women, Wizo.uk has been working with other organisations including UJIA and the Jewish Volunteering Network to run a series of courses, first to encourage women to aim for leadership roles and then to provide the necessary training to attain them.

The current male-dominated environment can be off-putting: women need to be equipped with the appropriate skills and support to boost their confidence. In addition, courses such as UJIA's Adam Science leadership programme give young women the skills to develop their leadership potential alongside their male counterparts, enhancing their abilities and hence the opportunities available.

No one is saying that this path will be easy and that we should expect to see results overnight. However, we will be able to make a difference only if more members of the community recognise the current challenge and take responsibility for driving this change.

Michele Vogel is the president of Wizo.UK

    Last updated: 4:35pm, June 3 2010

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