Quiet revolution that is taking women to the top in our community

Three of our communal organisations are leading a quiet revolution this month. In the firm belief that holding women back is not in their best interests, World Jewish Relief, JLiving (formerly JCHA) and Masorti Judaism have each decided to be guinea pigs in the brand new Gender Equality Plan pilot – the first such initiative, we believe, in any faith-based organisation. These three very different charities have decided that the only way to tackle the issue of equality is systematically, professionally and with a huge dose of soul searching.

Time after time, in the four years since we launched the JLC commission on Women in Jewish Leadership, men and women have told me that they or their organisations are “gender blind”.  They don’t notice what gender people are, they don’t discriminate, they really want women to succeed. The problem is that the issues which have led to so few women at the top of our organisations, are deeply ingrained and long established. So being “blind” to them doesn’t help one bit.  Organisations in the religious sector, according to a major 2010 report called Closer to Parity, are particularly poor performers on gender issues. But surely, as an established integrated community, Jewish organisations  should be comparing themselves with leading edge practice not languishing at the bottom of the pile. These three forward-looking bodies have recognised that without some introspection, a structure and some support from outside, driving genuine change is extremely difficult.

The idea behind the Gender Equality Plan is simple.  A framework, based on more than a year of research, interviews and consultation by a lay panel of experienced and committed women, takes organisations through a systematic self-assessment.  It encourages them to look at their recruitment processes, their training, personal development and promotion systems and to ask, at each level, are we genuinely giving women and men equal chance or are we being “gender blind”? It allows them to open their eyes to subtle prejudice, to hidden hurdles and to accidental pitfalls, which make women far less likely to succeed in both professional, and particularly in lay roles. Not only are these barriers infuriating but also they are often bordering on illegal given the stringent requirements of the 2010 Equalities Act.

The process starts with a questionnaire allowing organisations to start the process of self assessment. Then two of our trained volunteer panel comprising Dr Helena Miller, Debra Fox, Joanne Greenaway, Professor Margaret Harris, Suzanne Jacobs and Andrea Kelmanson  sit down with the senior management team and a trustee to discuss where the barriers are, what the objectives might be and a bespoke plan of action.  In three months time, with these initial meetings now complete, we will be going back to the organisation to see how they are getting on and how we can work together to reach their goals.

In the meantime, we are working with Lead, a division of the JLC, to help these organisations and others to develop mentoring programmes, networks and training courses. The most current and exciting is Envision, specifically for women in senior management roles, teaching them to be even better leaders, in a programme just slightly tailored to their specific needs.  We have educated, intelligent, driven women in our organisations, they just need a chance to break through.

So what do we have here? Is it another group of bossy, overbearing, Jewish man bashers from the Board of Deputies’ Women in Jewish Leadership project demanding “positive discrimination”?  Far from it. The first thing we learned the hard way was that change only comes when driven from within by willing partners. And the second was that no one wants to be in a pilot where there isn’t going to be an obvious benefit.  Imposing change isn’t an option; our role is to offer guidance and encouragement, working with eager partners so that in 10 years’ time, when we say we are gender blind, we mean that gender doesn’t matter, not that we just haven’t noticed.



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