Women in leadership: finally smashing the glass ceiling

Are we seeing a new era for women in Jewish communal leadership?


Forty years ago this week the phrase “glass ceiling” was coined to describe the limitations that women encounter at work. Marilyn Loden had listened patiently as an all-female conference panel explained that it was their own poor self-image that held them back at work, in a session entitled "Mirror, mirror on the wall."

Eventually it was her time to speak. She suggested that, rather than a looking-glass holding them back, women should think in terms of a glass ceiling, the external factors blocking their progress. “Everyone was aghast,” she recalled this week, speaking from her home in California. “They’d all reached the consensus that women were their own worst enemies.” She says things have changed since 1978. “But we still see a real imbalance within leadership positions.”

Surely there were few communities which displayed the glass ceiling effect as clearly as our own? Our communal leadership is generally middle-aged, middle class men, often with many women working for them, but few in the top jobs. Women were for decades barred from sitting on shul boards. Sure, some women did make it to positions of power, but they really stood out.

Take Ita Symons, veteran chief executive of the Agudas Israel Housing association, who built her career within the male dominated world of the Strictly Orthodox community. She describes her early years of trying to get affordable housing for the Strictly Orthodox Jewish community as “like hitting my head against a brick wall rather than a glass ceiling.

"It is no exaggeration to say that I was the laughing stock of women and men as well as the authorities and people that I approached for help.” Nonetheless she persevered, and created affordable housing for many.

But now things are changing. In the last few weeks we’ve seen Rabba Dina Brawer become the UK’s first Orthodox woman rabbi and lawyer, Marie van de Zyl elected President of the Board of Deputies. Amanda Bowman became a Vice President of the Board as well. At the United Synagogue, Jo Grose and Jo Greenaway were both promoted to key positions. Add in the leaders to those already in place — Gillian Merron, CEO of the Board of Deputies since 2014, Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, senior rabbi of the Reform Community, to name but two — and we start to have a different face of leadership in our community.

Leaders don’t come out of nowhere. Many of those mentioned above have taken part in senior leadership programmes at Lead, a division of the Jewish Leadership Council. Nicky Goldman, its Executive Director has, with colleagues,spent years developing leadership skills within the community, encouraging people like Marie Van de Zyl, Dina Brawer and Amanda Bowman on their journey to the top.

“The community was always great at developing our young leaders through youth movements and youth and student organisations,” says Goldman, “but leadership development is needed throughout one’s communal journey.” To this end Gamechangers, was developed, a programme designed for future lay leaders to identify thecommunity's key challenges and creatively address them. This course was praised by Marie van de Zyl last week, telling the JC: that it "began the real start to my communal journey." Brawer and Greenaway have also taken part.

A new initiative, the Dangoor Senior Leadership Programme is designed for senior lay and professional leaders to explore their own leadership style in-depth and emerge more assured and ultimately more effective in their roles. Amanda Bowman is currently on the programme, and feels that it has given her the framework and the space to consider “who I am in terms of my Jewish leadership role and what more I could give.” Jo Grose is also a current Dangoor Fellow.

Goldman says they learn the theory of the "'incomplete leader — a leader who is a real, relatable person, willing to be vulnerable about their shortcomings and open about their own struggles.” Participants focus on their own leadership style, “to allow people the space to take a step back, analyse their own behaviour and hone their own authentic approach. There is no one size fits all to leadership — it’s about being a more skilled and aware version of yourself.” Of course, many men have benefitted from the courses too.

For Hannah Rose, president-elect of the Union of Jewish Students, the glass ceiling is most certainly a concern. “The glass ceiling is omnipresent, especially in our own community. I remember as a madricha on a recent Israel trip having the basics of my job explained to me by a male temporary security guard. In that moment I felt I would always be undervalued and overlooked as a young woman.

“In UJS, I feel very fortunate to have been preceded by some powerful women, who have already formed cracks in the glass ceiling. This year, we’ll be continuing the fight by reserving places for women and non-binary individuals on our representative bodies and building on the successful relaunch of our women’s network.

“It is our duty as Jewish people to continue challenging discrimination, saying loud and clear: my gender does not dictate my value. “

As for Ita Symons, she points out that although many refused to help her, one of her greatest supporters was a Chasidic leader of the Satmar community, and her achievements won people over eventually. She points out that in her community, many leaders of charities are women. This is also true of the wider Jewish community. “No sob story, girls!” she adds.

At Lead, Goldman is encouraged by the recent surge in female leadership but not surprised. “When you invest in developing women, outstanding leaders emerge and the whole community benefits”.

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