Who's Responsible for the Gender Imbalance at Communal Forums?
In a post on eJewish Philanthropy’s blog on Tuesday, rock musician and Jewish feminist blogger Naomi Less discusses four recent communal endeavors at which she believes women were given the shaft.
Less doesn’t simply list grievances against the Jewish community, but suggests solutions to the problem of female under-representation, and proposes a series of four questions that every organization should ask itself when planning events to avoid gender discrimination or misrepresentation. She even offers to connect various organizations with different women for their events.
Reading Less’s commentary and her recounting of these episodes are both heartening and exhausting: We are still having the same conversation about how to include Jewish women in a community that is apparently evolving towards a place of gender inclusion. Furthermore, as is demonstrated in the comments following Less’s piece, members of the Jewish community continue to question the validity of that conversation.
The quandaries of gender inclusion and charges of discrimination are hardly new features to today’s debate occurring within the Jewish community. Sadly, neither is the denial that Less and others highlight in similar assertions. Less’s piece points to an array of different contributors/reasons as to why this could be occurring, from organizational and gender standpoints: Are organizations excluding women? Are men hesitating to incorporate women into different communal constructs? Are women not stepping up, and if so, why not?
Organizations are excluding women, and aren’t backing up these effectively sexist stances with legitimate reasons. The disproportionate number of men involved in the leadership positions of Jewish organizations (read: executive directors) has an effect on the decisions being made about the status of women in such organizations — so, yes, they do bear some responsibility.
Women are everywhere in Jewish organizations, but are virtually absent from top roles. Unfair maternity leave, child-care, pay and hiring policies make it hard for women to stay in the game. On the other hand, as long as women in the Jewish community remain reticent as to their own status, the situation is unlikely to change.
In one comment on Less’s piece, reader “Elise” questioned the existence of Jewish women up to the task of taking part in these events. “Shoshana,” another reader, assured her that there “are enough capable, bright and worthy women that if they aren’t there its an issue.” Are we stifling ourselves? Do we hold back from applying for leadership positions, from inserting ourselves into various communal spaces because of some intrinsic belief about how women should or should not behave? Has the desire to fight simply left us? Or do we really not see our absence, believing instead that women have arrived?
As Jewish women, we have a responsibility to not be complicit in our exclusion from communal spaces. This means not only naming the absence and suggesting ways to handle it (as Less does), but speaking up when we’re challenged as to the reality of our absence (“aren’t there enough opportunities for Jewish women?”), as well as talking to one another and building power through shared experiences. We can’t be complacent. Our unified goal should be to work with each other and with organizations and their (probably, predominantly male) leadership to change the reality on the ground, as unending and tedious as the process of getting there may seem.