I heard audible sighs of relief this week with the publication of the trustee gender figures, compiled by Ben Crowne. With 32 per cent of our charities’ board members now women, and the national average at around 36 per cent, the community had largely caught up.
We could maybe feel some achievement, especially as the percentage of women trustees in Muslim organisations has been calculated at around eight per cent and we know, too that faith organisations, as a whole, fare badly on gender equality.
But let’s say our Jewish schools were performing just a little worse than the national average, our care homes were considered to be a little less caring than non-Jewish homes or our philanthropic giving was lower than the national norm. We would be, rightly, mortified — particularly and importantly because the national figures themselves are way below optimum in all three cases.
Any relief, then, is misplaced. And a little more digging makes very clear just how far we have to go and how many problems these figures mask.
First, Mr Crowne did not include Strictly Orthodox charities in the 80 organisations he examined. Many Charedi charities have no female trustees at all, so leaving them out makes the percentage of women trustees reported appear far higher than the reality.
Secondly, of those 80 charities, almost 40 per cent had either none or just one female trustee. Lord Davies’s report on women on the boards of FTSE companies —published in 2015 — showed conclusively that a solitary woman finds it very hard to be heard. As the sole woman on the boards of two Jewish organisations, I know that it requires a great deal of confidence and experience not to find the situation extremely challenging.
Three of the biggest synagogue denomination boards (the United Synagogue, Reform and Liberal) are all pretty well balanced in gender terms. This is very encouraging, especially given the substantial shifts in the governance of the United Synagogue, and suggests that where a Jewish organisation is closely scrutinized by its members, gender equality is taken seriously.
World Jewish Relief followed the award-winning Gender Equality Plan two years ago, and based on their own set of priorities, have now achieved a well-balanced board too.
While some major Jewish organisations continue to explain away their lack of women in terms of halacha, the majority seem to have no explanation, presumably other than a lack of belief that gender balance is a priority.
Equality and diversity on boards does matter, partly because organisations need to reflect a variety of views, and partly because the evidence shows diverse boards are more effective.
Women trustees are more likely to notice a wide gender pay gap (around 80 per cent of British companies pay their men more than their women), but mainly it matters because the exclusion of women is no longer acceptable. The pattern self-perpetuates with women of this and the next generation feeling they are not valued as Jewish lay leaders.
As Mr Crowne has pointed out elsewhere, it’s not rocket science to add women to our boards. Trustees should serve their time and move on. The specific skills required exist in our women as well as our men, so we need to seek out these talented women and bring them on.
The Association of Jewish Women and their Organisations (AJWO), which I co-chair with Deborah Nathan, is the only voice in the community committed specifically to championing women. With women from all our affiliate groups, and from across the community, we simply must end this entrenched gender blindness.
There is no comfort in being not far behind the woefully inadequate national average and we invite all those who see this as a priority to use the 100 year anniversary of women’s suffrage to demand change.