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What is it like to be a woman in Judaism?

A female rabbi argues that Jewish women should not be denied an equal portion of participation.

Recently I met a student at a university Jewish society who described eloquently how it felt for her to have had an Orthodox bat mitzvah, the Jewish adulthood initiation ceremony. It was held on a Sunday. Boys, however, celebrate their bar mitzvah on a Saturday, our Sabbath. She read in English rather than Hebrew. She certainly did not read from a Torah scroll – part of the Hebrew Bible.

The celebration that followed took place in the same banqueting hall where her two brothers had held theirs but, as she described with a mixture of derision and sadness, they had partitioned the hall for her party, using only a third of the space. It felt to me as if she was describing only a third of the joy.

The “only a third” moment echoes many Jewish women’s experience of being denied an equal portion of participation and represen­tation in the leadership of our organisations. But something might be changing. Perhaps the banqueting hall of women’s involvement may be expanding, the partitions shifting as the issue of Jewish women’s participation hits the communal agenda. The Commission on Women in Jewish Leadership was launched this year to examine the leadership gender imbalance. As the members put it, “The genie is out of the bottle.”

Status symbols

Regrettably, the aspiration of having even a third seems optimistic – a 2011 snapshot of British Jews shows that despite high levels of education and achievement in the secular world, Jewish women occupy only a quarter of leadership positions, disproportionately low compared to the wider population. However, the genie is working her way through the community. Well-publicised cases of gender se­gregation are causing concern among middle-of-the-road Orthodox people. They realise that the changing status of women is emblematic of the direction in which their stream of Judaism may be running.

The main newspaper of British Jewry, the Jewish Chronicle, pays frequent attention to the matter: earlier this month it published a letter on the subject under the heading “Women still sidelined by United Synagogue” – the United Synagogue being the main institution for Orthodox British Jews. The female correspondent highlighted how dismal it was that women are precluded from being trustees of the United Synagogue and from standing for chair of the board of an Orthodox house of worship. “This archaic rule alienates and disenfranchises women in our community,” she wrote. “Why should educated, capable, articulate women be able to work hard behind the scenes at a synagogue, but not be seen to be leading?”

This is not a narrow tribal, denominational concern; it is both ideological and practical. We are too small a grouping to exclude the talent of more than half our potential leaders.

The main, well-documented barriers preventing change and a fully inclusive model of leadership from emerging include the paradox of what one woman calls the “tough stance”: powerful women are seen as aggressive when successful but weak when they fail. It certainly undermines women. There is an expectation that Jewish women will put their family first but they receive insufficient and ineffective support to enable them to balance the needs of the community with those of the family.

There is also the belief (and reality) that there is an “old boys’ network” approach to recruitment into lay positions, in effect excluding many women from consideration. Many observers note a perception that many Jewish communal organisations are simply not committed to change or to gender equality. This leads to an exodus of talent; Jewish women are not choosing to focus their energies on developing the community.

However, a far more sinister polarisation is threatening the very foundations of our community: a pernicious increase in gender segregation in the public sphere and the silencing of women’s voices among certain fundamentalist circles in Israel and in the Jewish diaspora. The debacle in Israel of not only gender-segregated buses but also gender-segregated health clinics has increased. This is accompanied by a far more disturbing phenomenon, emanating from the claim that women distract men from prayer and that our voices in song – or even talking – can lead to sexual misconduct, of attempts to silence women’s voices.

Take the lead

This silencing is seeping into public zones, including banning women from singing at some mainstream public ceremonies, and even from presenting at religious academic conferences.

Some Orthodox women are speaking out against the exclusion, seeing it as a misuse of religious law. Others are calling on Orthodox rabbis to enable maximum participation of women, but there are pitifully few who actively encourage their female congregants to take leadership roles.

In contrast, I know that I am blessed as a woman, and as a mother-of-three, to hold the leadership position of rabbi to the Movement for Reform Judaism. In this, I join other female colleagues in leadership roles, such as the chair of the movement, the convenor of our religious court, the principal of our rabbinical training college and the senior rabbi of one of our flagship synagogues. I luxuriate in this freedom to speak out in public, to influence and to lead.

This is the expansion of the banqueting hall and it bolsters the community that celebrates living within it. The hall needs to be one in which Jewish men and Jewish women mingle, where they value each other’s contributions and where our different skills combine to strengthen and improve both the Jewish and the wider community. 

Movement for Reform Judaism:

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who speaks for British Jews?

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.