The shameful exclusion of women from Jewish life continues to plague our community. Friends on social media have been shouting about a number of recent all-male panels: rabbis Micah Goodman, Rick Jacobs and Elliot Cosgrove at Park Avenue Synagogue; David Horowitz, Ron Kampeas and William Daroff at a J-Pro webinar, and Ari Shavit, Abraham Foxman, Peter Beinart and Dan Senor at the 92nd Street Y. At the same time, the Jerusalem-based Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism featured three all-male panels out of a total of five, with only five women — that’s under 13% percent — spotlighted among 39 speakers and panel chairs.
This isn’t only a Jewish problem. At allmalepanels.tumblr.com, people are invited to submit photos and screenshots of all-male events. There are hundreds, each stamped with a picture of David Hasselhoff giving the thumbs-up, and containing the sarcastic tag-line “Congrats, you have an all male panel!” The feministe.us website ran a humor piece titled “Female Conference Speaker Bingo,” listing common excuses for all-male panels: “There aren’t enough qualified female speakers”; “It’s a male-dominated field”; “Both women we called were busy that weekend”; “Women never volunteer to present,” and “Who? I’ve never heard of her.”
In fact, these excuses reflect the experience of even the best-intentioned conference organizers. Here at Masorti Judaism, the umbrella body for Masorti/Conservative communities in the United Kingdom, we recently ran a panel discussion aimed at professionals from the finance industry. We invited several well-qualified speakers, both men and women, and while the men accepted, all the women turned us down. When the program went to press, we faced a wave of complaints about the all-male line-up.
And our excuses were good: We had approached women; we were looking for speakers in a male-dominated profession, and this was the first all-male panel we’d ever run. Eventually, with some extra encouragement, one of our female colleagues changed her mind and agreed to appear. Why had she previously hesitated? Despite her years of experience and her clear views on the subject, she had not been confident that she was qualified to speak. Interesting that none of the men we’d approached had expressed any such reservations.
We persevered because it was clear to us that the excuses — and our positive intentions — were not good enough. Every all-male panel reinforces the idea that we don’t need to hear women’s voices, discourages other women from speaking out, and narrows the range of views and expertise to which we are exposed. The more we accept all-male presentations, the more common they become, and the more the community suffers from the underrepresentation of some of our most talented members.
In the U.K. we take this point seriously. Inspired by an American initiative (see advancingwomen.org), the Women in Jewish Leadership initiative of our communal umbrella body, the Board of Deputies, has launched a campaign that asks communal leaders to refuse to participate in all-male panels. Masorti Judaism has not only signed up to this, but is also piloting another initiative, the Gender Equality Plan, in which we’ve committed to change our recruitment procedures, adopt new polices and implement a mentoring scheme, all to ensure that women are well-represented among our senior lay leadership.
It’s bad enough from a liberal-democratic perspective that contemporary society still excludes women. For evidence, you don’t have to go to Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia; just look at the endemic problem of sexual harassment, the number of women in the board room or in Congress, or at the pay gap between men and women in Europe and the United States. But as Jews we have an additional reason to care. While the talmudic rabbis were trailblazers in their defense of women’s rights, our tradition has all too often become patriarchal, assigning women a second-class religious status. Some of us still pray in synagogues that preserve traditional gender roles, excluding women from most public ceremonial duties. And in the Orthodox world they are still largely excluded from halachic decision making.
While we can’t always change religious practice, it is our duty to provide a corrective to this heritage wherever we can. The Jewish community should be pioneering gender equality, not lagging shamefully behind. Refusing to speak on all-male panels is vital — but it’s only a first step.
Matt Plen is chief executive of Masorti Judaism, in the U.K. Contact him on Twitter at @mattPlen
Matt Plen is Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK.