“Because it’s 2015,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau famously replied when asked why it was important to have a gender-balanced federal cabinet. And yet, there is a long way to go. Two years later, stories of sexual harassment and abuse seem depressingly endless. But even outside the astonishing ugliness of Hollywood and the media, it’s still largely a man’s world.
Our Jewish community is no exception to this stubborn trend. Even though there are probably more women than men in Jewish Canada – women tend to live longer, and there are slightly more female births – men overwhelmingly occupy positions of communal power.
In July, for instance, this newspaper issued a special edition to mark Canada 150. Though there were several pieces dedicated to female Jewish Canadian contributions, there were also over three times as many profiles of Canadian Jewish men as there were of Canadian Jewish women.
At some level, this is explainable. Canadian Jews are not immune to broader social trends. So long as Canada faces gender imbalance, our community will too. Moreover, our tradition assigns different roles to males and females from birth. One of the great debates of our time is how to balance a Judaism that cherishes that tradition with one that reconciles it with modernity.
But explaining why power in our Jewish community is gender-imbalanced does not excuse it. And though discrete parts of our community place more emphasis on the traditional view, when it comes to gender equality, too many communal organizations are behind.
Federations, for instance, like to think of themselves as the central address for Canada’s Jewish communities. By my count, slightly more women than men serve as their CEOs – which is awesome! However, when it comes to their volunteer leadership, there are more than twice as many male chairs as female. In other words, women are taking on important senior professional community leadership roles, but their lay bosses remain disproportionately male.
Our advocacy organizations fare worse. B’nai Brith was an old boys’ club, almost literally. The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs has never had a female chair or CEO. And just two of the 23 people listed on the Canadian Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center’s leadership page are women. No organization can claim to represent a community when it excludes half its stakeholders from its leadership, nor can it claim to defend human rights.
The story repeats across our communal structure, with organizations missing the mark on gender balance in their professional leadership, boards of directors and even fundraising honorees. And while groups like Canadian Hadassah-WIZO and National Council of Jewish Women of Canada do wonderful work, women’s successes cannot be restricted to women-only initiatives.
No one knows how many Jewish organizations have made gender balance a policy or an objective – or even how many care. And while I generally support objectives over policies, what we really need is a sense of urgency to embrace real change.
Real change will not only reverse the disservice that gender imbalance does to our communal bodies and the stakeholders they serve, it will also end the terribly insidious message of inadequacy sent to Jewish girls across Canada when the people running their communal institutions are disproportionately men – or when their fathers tend to take leadership positions while their mothers find other grassroots community service outlets.
In fairness, getting to a gender-balanced community leadership will be neither quick nor simple. Complex social, economic and cultural factors are deeply entrenched. But the boards on which I serve, which have been disproportionately male-led, struggle with this challenge and work to address it. That is the vital first step.
It’s time to lean in. If gender balance can work for the federal cabinet, then it can work for our community, too. Because it’s 5778, and it’s well past time.