We Still Have Work To Do. by the Forward

We Still Have Work To Do.

By Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu

2018 was the “Year of the Woman.” More women were elected to Congress than ever before. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements continued to bring issues of sexual harassment and gender bias in to the news, and women (and men) showed up in the streets, online – and everywhere — to advance women’s rights.

Now it’s 2019, and we still have work to do. For women.

The Women’s March, a leading organization in the bourgeoning women’s movement, is now plagued by accusations of antisemitism and in-fighting. A recent New York Times story chronicles how an earlier Jewish leader in the Women’s March, Vanessa Wruble, was pushed out by other women. To many Jewish feminists, the March’s statement against anti-Semitism was too little, too late, with several organizations leaving the coalition and overall turnout down at 2019 marches.

Yet we can’t afford to let this tension tamper with the positive energy and momentum around women’s rights and empowerment. This energy inspired me to redirect my professional life so that I could work for a women’s organization and have a bigger impact.

It’s been a year since three Jewish women — Shifra Bronznick, Barbara Dobkin and Rabbi Joanna Samuels — wrote about #MeToo and women’s basic rights coming to the fore in eJewishPhilanthropy: “what is potentially transformational about this moment is that for once the problem to be fixed is not women, but rather an overall social system that is anchored in male privilege and male violence.” Since then, the Jewish community has come together to try to address systemic forms of inequality in the Jewish community most notably in the Safety, Equity, and Respect Coalition of which I am a member of the Steering Committee.

As we set off into 2019, gender bias and the gender gap continue to permeate all aspects of society. To change that, all of us must work to recognize the systemic barriers that stand in our way. Each of us must help identify and challenge barriers to women’s equality, wherever we see them.

In politics, even as more women assume leadership positions in local, state and national offices, women still make up less than 25% of Congress. This number should be 50%. While several high-profile men have been outed for their sexually harassing behavior, rumors still swirl about several others who have yet to be made public.

Looking at the business world “only 26 women are in CEO roles at Fortune 500 companies,” according to a Pew Research report. Among the top 100 venture firms, only 8% of partners are female, according to Crunchbase, and 90% of venture dollars globally go to all-male teams.

We still have work to do.

At Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, women’s health equity is a priority issue. Yet in the medical field, there are far too few women in leadership positions where they can advance equity in medical prevention, research, funding, and quality of care. Only 18% of hospital CEOs are women, and only 7% of the editors in chief of medical journals are women, according to a recent report in the Harvard Business Review.

We still have work to do.

The task can seem daunting. With each step forward, it seems women take several steps back. But we must continue pushing forward. Jewish women have played a unique leadership role in the modern women’s movement. Just look at Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem and more recently Sheryl Sandberg to name a few. Given white Jewish women’s historical prominence in the women’s movement over the decades, it does not surprise me that we are experiencing a backlash now. Other minority women’s groups want to be heard and seen. They should be! However, there are lots of moving parts in this movement. One group’s dominance at any one time should not shut out another group. Among them, we must hear the voices of both Jewish and non-Jewish women of color.

We still have work to do.

Women have always gained power by organizing, by finding common ground and working together. The suffragettes were divided over their views on slavery and abolition. Yet, they pushed forward. This history still resonates today. Women are not a monolithic group. We will always have disagreements and, as part of a broader movement, each of us will fight to advance our priority issues. Yet, we must keep the bigger picture in mind. We must highlight all of our lived experiences and share our stories around power, harassment, motherhood, and work. All women must be empowered to speak up.

We still have work to do.

It is at times like these that we see just how much we still need the power of women’s organizations to help create unity around women’s rights and gender equity, and to fight misogyny.

Hundred-plus-year old women’s organizations like Hadassah can still galvanize its 300,000 members, who live in every congressional district! We can fight for women’s health care, equality and empowerment. New organizations like #TimesUp can push for gender equity in the entertainment business and inspire smaller initiatives like the Gender Equity in Hiring Project, which focuses on the Jewish community.

In the Jewish community, the disparity runs deep. As Gali Cooks, who leads an organization focused on next-generation Jewish leadership, has pointed out, about 70% of the total workforce in the Jewish not-for-profit sector is female; about 30% are men. “But when it comes to leadership positions,” she noted, “it’s the exact reverse.”

We still have work to do.

On a positive note, there’s one place where women are disproportionately represented: philanthropy. Studies show that women are more likely to give and to give more. And there’s more good news from a recent study by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute: when people find out that others are donating to support women and girls, they’re more likely to support women and girls themselves.

If you haven’t already, it’s not too late to make a 2019 resolution to be a part of moving this work forward. Women’s rights have been won, battle by battle. As it says in Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of Our Ancestors, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” So commit now to donate time, money, and your expertise to help move women’s rights forward.

We still have work to do in 2019. Let’s get to it!

Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu is the Director of the Division of Member and Unit Services at Hadassah. She is one of the leaders of the Gender Equity in Hiring in the Jewish Community Project and sits on the Steering Committee of the Safety, Respect Equity Coalition. Previously she was the Director of Rabbis Without Borders at Clal and has published extensively on Jewish communal and women’s issues. Hadassah is the largest Jewish women’s organization in the United States. With 300,000 members, Associates and supporters, Hadassah brings Jewish women together to effect change.

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