Recently, we celebrated the birth of Iris, my second baby grand-daughter. Of course, there were the usual jokes about saving for the wedding. There were also more serious musings about her future: her education; what career she might choose as an adult. Our elder grand-daughter, Dora, is 18 months old and is obsessed with her favourite toy, a large digger truck. It is still surprising how quickly we begin to stereotype based on gender. Even at this early stage, parents of little girls are engaged in the battle against “pink everything”.
As we try to envisage the future for the girls, can we dare to believe that they will be able to choose according to their interests and achieve according to their abilities? Would it be unrealistic to assume that there will be no gender barriers or limitations to the options available or the directions they could pursue?
We all want the best for our children. In British Jewry, education is central to all that we hold dear. Parents agonise over choosing the right school for their child, scrutinise league tables, question whether private schools are better than state schools and discuss whether single-sex education is more effective.
But while the future of our community and its leadership depends so much on the quality of, and access to education, we should also think harder about what happens beyond school and university. We must ensure a society where our girls see with their own eyes that anything is possible; and in particular, that this is a community in which women’s contributions are genuinely valued.
That Jewish women have made their mark outside the community is beyond question: their achievements in business, politics, science, the arts and media are well-documented. The evidence that gender-balanced leadership makes for more profitable and more effective organisations, attracts customers and draws the most talented employees is in 2014 a bit of a no-brainer.
What will be the future for Iris and Dora and their friends?
Yet, for some reason, this approach has not permeated our own, overwhelmingly male communal leadership: there is still a sense that this is somehow “not an area for women” while claims are made that appointments for trusteeships and other leadership positions are made on a level playing field.
Many women do have to juggle their careers with being mothers and home-makers. Their frequent experience within our community is that many of our communal organisations are still resistant to making the changes necessary to encourage more women to take up influential roles while at the same time accommodating family life.
The answer lies not in further discussion. Communal debates on improving the gender balance have run their course. Most organisations, including prominent decision-making bodies in the Jewish community, accept that without more women on their boards they do not adequately represent their constituents. There have been some significant changes, but we still lag well behind national norms.
The real remaining obstacle lies in the lack of commitment to implement transparent policies and fairer systems to close the gender gap and encourage and promote the best people in every area. Following the recommendations of the Women’s Commission in 2012, the Women in Jewish Leadership project is looking at ways to help implement changes that will empower more women to take up leadership positions.
The challenges that lie ahead require new approaches and greater diversity in our future leaders. Women do not want to seize leadership roles from men, but to share them. We must also encourage more young people, people with disabilities and people from different backgrounds to bring their unique perspectives to bear at the top table.
When Iris and Dora are older and ask me if they can one day become leaders of their community, I want to tell them that there is nothing that they cannot achieve if they are determined, work hard, listen and learn. I do not want them to accept that they are less likely to realise their ambitions because they are women and I hope that within the next few years all the restrictive, artificial barriers to women’s achievement within our own community will be confined to history. The answer lies in our communal actions, as well as our words.