Women ‘need to see it to be it’

Last year, The AJN undertook an investigation which uncovered alarming experiences of gender inequality and harassment in Jewish organisations. Nine months on, has progress ensued?

The story so far

WOMEN belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.” While the immortalised words of the late US Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg were uttered almost two decades ago, they continue to echo loudly, their resonance ever-poignant as the discussion around gender equality evolves.

Yes, there has been progress; in 1995, a mere 11 per cent of worldwide national parliamentarians were women; a figure that has now reached 25 per cent. It’s growth, but still, women occupy just one quarter of parliamentary roles. Such a statistic not only illustrates the pervasiveness of the broader issue, but underscores the glacial pace of positive change; at this current rate, it will take another 50 years to reach gender parity.

Closer to home, the Australian Jewish community is not exempt from such underrepresentation of women in positions of leadership, as revealed in extensive reporting by The AJN. In a special investigation into gender equality and harassment last year, The AJN surveyed the experiences of 111 Melbourne and Sydney women who hold professional or board roles in Jewish organisations. The findings revealed 37 per cent had experienced gender-based bullying in a Jewish organisation; and almost 40 per cent said they do not have the same access to opportunities enjoyed by men in communal leadership (including professional and board appointments, decision making and community panels and events). One fifth of respondents said they had encountered sexual harassment; and 60 per cent of women agreed that they feel uncomfortable with the language used about or toward women in the workplace.

The qualitative data painted a similarly grim picture. When women raised instances of sexual harassment or gender-based bullying with a manager, many said their complaint was not taken seriously or acted upon swiftly. More often than not, it was the victim who left the organisation. The survey also revealed inadequate or unclear processes for reporting, and a lack of human resources support. Many women lamented that leadership positions are mostly dominated by men, making it difficult to raise such issues when they occur; and described inaction around forging pathways that foster their career progression into senior roles.

#BREAKING An AJN special investigation has revealed an alarming reality: Over one third (37 per cent) of 111 women…

Posted by The Australian Jewish News on Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Responding to The AJN’s investigation, communal leaders admonished the findings, calling them “simply not acceptable”.

The Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV) proposed to offer training to organisations to “ensure they have appropriate reporting mechanisms”, implored for women to be trained for leadership roles, and organisations to include female speakers on every panel.

Meanwhile in Sydney, JCA president Stephen Chipkin pledged action by JCA and member organisations to “ensure safe channels are established … and that issues are addressed fairly and quickly”.

President of the Zionist Federation of Australia (ZFA) Jeremy Leibler said the statistics are a “clarion call to all in the community”, while the National Council of Jewish Women of Australia (Victoria) (NCJWA Vic) said, “We must do better,” emphasising the importance of organisations taking their Gender Equality Pledge.

Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) president Jillian Segal said that “dealing with these instances appropriately is not only a governance matter but a cultural matter”.

And nine months later, how has the community supported the issue? What change have communal stalwarts led?

Tracking the progress

  • At the forefront of communal progress, the ZFA was the first national roof body to adopt NCJWA (Vic)’s Gender Equality Pledge in 2019.

“This decision wasn’t about jumping on a politically correct bandwagon,” reflects Leibler. “It was because men and women should feel equally safe in every setting in our community, and should enjoy genuine equality of opportunity.”

Since signing the pledge, the ZFA called on its affiliates to also adopt it, internalise its values and effect the cultural shifts required to put values into action.

Last year, the ZFA launched an internal review of the organisation’s human resource policies and protocols, with a focus on ensuring best practice in terms of identifying and addressing discrimination, harassment and bullying; and fostering the active promotion of gender balanced public events and activities. Recognising this further, in November, the ZFA elected five female leaders to the office bearer roles (its key decision making body), achieving gender parity.

We are proud to be an organisation which The Australian Jewish News declared is "at the forefront of communal progress"…

Posted by Zionist Federation of Australia on Thursday, March 18, 2021

  • In August 2020, Monash University’s Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation (ACJC) announced the Kerryn Baker Memorial Endowment for Gender Research, which will see an annual partnership with a Jewish organisation to undertake a research project related to women or gender that will positively impact the community. Collaborating with NCJWA (Vic) on the inaugural project, in October the ACJC launched a survey investigating the experiences and perceptions of gender equity, gender-based discrimination and harassment in Jewish communal organisations. Over 400 women took part, and currently the ACJC is examining the data, identifying key themes and trends, success stories, and areas for improvement.

Compelled to lead the project after witnessing women colleagues bravely tell their stories of discrimination, harassment, and assault within Jewish professional contexts while living in the US, associate professor David Slucki said that on his return to Australia a few years ago, he “was convinced that it was time for us to investigate how gender functions within Jewish organisations locally”.

“We are not immune from the issues that researchers have highlighted in North America and the United Kingdom,” he said.

“We hope that this research will contribute to the effort to make Jewish institutions safer and more diverse for all.”

  • The ECAJ unanimously passed a motion for gender equality at its AGM last year, after former NCJWA (Vic) president Miriam Bass was appointed as a Victorian councillor. The motion stated: “There is absolutely no place in communal life for sexual harassment or any form of bullying, including gender-based bullying.”

Citing The AJN’s special investigation and the progress of ACJC and JCA, co-CEO of ECAJ Peter Wertheim said, “Accordingly, it was felt that the ECAJ should itself adopt a specific policy on gender equality.”

Subsequently, ECAJ established a working group along with representatives from the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies (JBOD), NCJWA, WIZO, and the Jewish Community Council of South Australia. Together these representatives are currently producing a detailed draft policy, covering examples of discriminatory and bullying behaviour, and grievance and complaint procedures.

Speaking to The AJN, JBOD representative on the working group, Melissa McCurdie, said the draft policy is “very necessary, unfortunately”.

“All companies and organisations are behoved to do what they can to make sure that their governance is up to speed to morally acceptable standards and community expectations.”

Once finalised, ECAJ will release the document as a model for other Jewish organisations.

  • The NCJWA (Vic) has continued the #MakeSpaceForHer campaign, launched in 2019 aiming to address gender equality in the Jewish community. With 33 signatories to its Gender Equality Pledge, the next phase will see a database of accomplished Jewish women who can serve as speakers for events, chairs for committees and sit on boards to lead other organisations, be offered to the community.

“No longer will the answer be, we wanted a woman but we couldn’t find one,” enthused CEO Alexandra Silver.

“We are not here to shame anyone … We are here to engage, educate and inspire men and women to speak up for the women of our great community, the mothers, the daughters, sisters and wives.”

  • JCA established a working group last year to investigate gender diversity on its communal boards. When asked about the status of the investigation, president Ian Sandler said, “The work of the group is in progress.”
  • While former JCCV president Jennifer Huppert advocated for strong action on the issue, since her tenure ended late last year, there does not appear to have been any progress. The AJN reached out to the JCCV for comment several times, but did not receive a response.

The conversation continues: Female representation

TAKING a strong stance on gender diversity, a number of male communal figures are refusing to sit on panels, committees or boards that do not achieve adequate female representation.

“I can’t see an occasion where it would be okay to not have a female voice represented … There are many men who have the same stance as me and just won’t consider it,” said Hakoah engagement director and former CEO of Stand Up, Gary Samowitz. “I greatly value equality, diversity and justice so sitting on an all-male panel would be against everything I stand for.”

When Samowitz calls out organisations for failing to achieve adequate female representation, he says the response tends to be, “We would love to have women on this panel, but the ones we contacted weren’t available.”

“It’s the same excuse when organisations don’t have women on their boards. Make more of an effort instead of saying it’s too difficult.”

Samowitz mused, “If my twin daughters never see a Jewish communal leader who is a female standing up, then they think being a leader is a man’s job. I don’t want my kids to grow up in a culture where they think that … You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Disappointingly, many organisations are continuing to punch below their weight in this arena. As noted by Leibler, “Some have not delivered and … have in fact gone backwards. That is very disappointing.”

An outpouring of disappointment and disdain has grown towards Melbourne's Mizrachi Organisation following a decision to…

Posted by The Australian Jewish News on Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Indeed, as reported in a December edition of The AJN in Melbourne, furore erupted after the Mizrachi Organisation made the decision to dump the only woman who sat on its executive in a secret ballot – after signing the NCJWA (Vic) Gender Equality Pledge.

At the time, Mizrachi Organisation president Danny Lamm said, “The decision was not gender-based … the composition of the executive is being reviewed to ensure greater opportunities for female and young adult representation.”

In a letter to the NCJWA (Vic), Lamm also noted, “the significant number of women on the Mizrachi committee which is the organisation’s principal governing body”. He told The AJN the composition was “consistent with the pledge”.

Immediate past chair of Leibler Yavneh College and former Mizrachi executive member Avi Gilboa sent a public email that was disseminated widely, condemning the executive for “muffling any prospect of a sole female voice”.

Speaking with The AJN, Gilboa, who is the managing director of Spotlight Group and has spent two decades on the boards of other multi-billion dollar corporations including Toll Holdings Limited and Repco Corporation, said, “In the year 2020, part of the obligation of all organisational leaders – certainly if they’ve signed a related pledge – is to be duty bound, personally, to ensure that they actively foster interest and visibly create pathways for women in the community to find the way to leadership positions.

“Leadership is first and foremost about responsibility and in this context, that requires all leaders to do something meaningful to promote the interests of 50 per cent of the community they represent.”

In Sydney, many women continue to feel dismayed by the lack of support, as a prominent board member of a Jewish organisation recently shared.

“I was applying for a more senior position and was challenged by a high-profile male leader about my ability to take on further responsibilities due to having young children,” she told The AJN.

“After the meeting, another high-profile figure said, “I’ve never seen someone trying to stop another person from taking on a role because of gender.”

The same female board member praised communal leaders as being “some of the brightest, most educated and progressive people in Australia”.

She lamented, however, that the organisations they lead and shape are not.

“These men are hiring, electing and appointing themselves and versions of themselves. While it is important what they are putting into their policies, it’s equally important how they implement them.”

Another woman active in the Sydney community observed, “For all the leadership roles in the community, one of the questions often asked when appointing senior roles is whether the applicant has been a president or CEO before. Many women haven’t. And they are reluctant to put their hand up because there are few role models for them to emulate.

“They need to see it to be it.”


FOLLOWING last year’s AJN investigation and the work of a few key organisations, some communal leaders have prioritised the psychological and physical safety of women in the workplace by reviewing their policies and developing new procedures around gender-based bullying and sexual harassment. While this is an essential step on the pathway towards gender equality, the extent to which meaningful cultural change is occurring can only be fully assessed once policies are enacted and put into practice.

This is where proactive measures including effective and ongoing education, underpinned by strong leadership, play an integral role.

Emphasising the need for a “consistent message [that is] backed up by those at the top”, Jewish Sydney-based human resources expert, Nick Hedges commented, “This is not a tick-the-box exercise to say, ‘We’ve done bullying and harassment training for two hours so that’s our job done’. Leaders need to show they actually believe in it, define their values and be prepared to make a tough call when needed.”

Added Hedges, “If the leader brushes bad behaviour under the carpet, then they are accepting that behaviour. The behaviour we ignore is the behaviour we accept. But the leader is ultimately accountable, and their heads should be on the chopping block for allowing this behaviour to permeate.”

In an added recent win for gender diversity, some organisations have displayed commitment in advocating for gender-balanced boards and panels.

Individually, these efforts are to be commended, but on a broader scale, the prevalence of male-dominated boards and panels persists.

All organisations must actively work towards building and maintaining a harmonious, productive and safe Jewish community, which values men and women in equal measure.

As one communally active Sydney woman recently stated, “There are a handful of exceptional women in leadership roles in our community organisations but there are thousands of them in the Jewish community at large. Collectively, we need to work out how to embrace them and include their vast talent.”

While women are predominantly impacted by this issue – it is not exclusively “theirs”. It concerns the entire community, and it is incumbent on those who are in privileged positions to effect change.

Reflecting on his involvement in leading the ACJC research project, Slucki affirmed, “The more that men participate in this discussion and commit to gender equality, the greater the potential to shape attitudes and practices.”

And ultimately, it begins with our organisational and communal leadership.

Said the late former chief rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “Others wait for something to happen; leaders help make something happen. While others curse the darkness, a leader lights a light.”

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