We Must Own our Responsibility as Women

By Maxyne Finkelstein

About 10 years ago I was invited to speak on a panel about the status of women in the Jewish community at a national Jewish conference. The primary concerns at that time was with issues of glass ceiling and the primary question being asked was whether there was a glass ceiling, were women evaluated by a different standard than men and were they being held back professionally by their gender?

I had decided to take a “tell it all” approach as I counted on a friendly audience of women who would be understanding and supportive of my impressions and relate to the data I had collected. Without hesitation I spoke of my own experiences of gender discrimination, mentioned some inappropriate comments and suggestions that had come my way over the years but focused more on a nagging feeling that there was something systemic holding back women of my generation.

During the presentation I related to my observation that the field was somewhat backward in regard to gender issues in comparison to other professions of similar value and believed it was in part because of the “informal nature” of interaction in many Jewish community organizations, something I had come to call the “Living Room Syndrome”; as we have a basic cultural familiarity with each other we often interact in the work place as if we are in our living room rather that within the framework of work place norms. One of the panelists who was a high placed and highly intelligent female lay leader proceeded to defend the existing system and deny that there was actual structural discrimination of any sort in community organizations. While colleagues came to support me after the session and say I was correct no one stood up to question the observation of the lay leader.

I recall leaving the session discouraged and thinking that perhaps my experiences were just that, my experience and if I wanted to make change it was up to me to use my personal resources to be conscious of supporting women who I work with and particularly those who would follow by being available to serve as a mentor and coach to other women, helping them understand that you can say no and trust someone will have your back and adopting work place policies that are more family friendly. Admittedly there has been organizational efforts to address gender discrimination and inequity, most notably Advancing Women Professionals which closed in 2015, but a systemic approach was always lacking. Based on recent articles in this publication alone and in other Jewish media we know that structural barriers, pay inequity, bullying of women, inappropriate language and actions and efforts to hide this issue are still part of the Jewish communal reality.

Today we can speak openly about issues that continue to impact women regarding #MeToo and beyond. Our responses to all incidents should reflect the values we espouse in our work and our personal lives every day, this requires every woman engaged in the Jewish community to think about her personal responsibility and how she can speak up for herself and her gender. If women find they cannot speak for themselves than those who can must be available to be their voices.

Over time I have come to see that advancing these discussions requires both a wide and deep approach. To begin, every conference that is convened by Jewish organizations should include a discussion on this topic until it becomes a real part of our communal fabric and not a set aside so that is only addressed in the media or closed rooms. Workplaces should provide women who have concerns a very safe space to share their experiences and seek assistance without fearing retribution. Organizations that do this well should be celebrated as the best places for women and men to work. I refer to women and men because this situation will not change if women are discussing it only amongst themselves. Male colleagues should be encouraged to become part of the discussion, hear concerns and make their own suggestions. Finally, volunteers, lay leaders and donors being introduced to organizations should learn about acceptable behaviour as part of the orientation to institutional culture and aspirations. While everyone can add to this list, what is most important that we each see ourselves as an actor in making change and ensuring that young people see the community as a place to admire which has no tolerance for inappropriate use of power or discrimination. When incidents occur, and they will, our responses must be swift, courageous and fair.

Maxyne Finkelstein is President, Morris and Rosalind Goodman Family Foundation.