"People thought I was there to take the minutes and serve the coffee"

On International Women’s Day 2019, World Jewish Relief trustee Katerina Gould reflects on the changes she has seen to the position of women in the workplace through her professional career and her time at World Jewish Relief. 

As a graduate in the City in the 1980s and 90s, I was often the sole female executive at the table. While I was fortunate that some of my male colleagues treated me as their equal, I encountered my share of people who thought I was there to take the minutes and serve the coffee.

I found it both puzzling and frustrating, as all my education and experience to this point had led me to believe that I was equal to any man. 

This first taste of sexism in the workplace ignited my drive to pursue gender equality throughout my professional life. I work with many aspiring women to help them develop their skills and qualities to enable them to reach the top level and continually demonstrate to employers the value of recruiting professional women who’ve taken a break from employment. 

Enabling these women to return to work is a great solution for many companies looking to address their lack of senior female leadership and thereby the gender pay gap. 

I was in my late 30s when I joined my first board, becoming Treasurer of UKJAID (UK Jewish Aid and International Development) on the death of, my father, Ansel Harris. 

Once again, as the only woman around the table, it seemed little had changed since my early career.  But in 2004 UKJAID merged with World Jewish Relief and I was encouraged to see that it already had a small number of highly effective female trustees. 

Five years ago the JLC announced its Women in Jewish Leadership Gender Equality programme to finally address the lack of gender balance across our communal bodies.  Our pioneering CEO, Paul Anticoni, leapt at the opportunity for World Jewish Relief to become one of the three pilot organisations.

I was thrilled to support Paul in this work and with the unequivocal support of our Chair, it was easy to convince the Board to commit to seeking an equal balance of men and women.  To meet the challenge, we adjusted our board recruitment processes through amending the language in our advertisements, broadening the networks through which we advertised open positions and making balance a priority. 

Remarkably, we achieved a gender balanced board in only 3 years. Despite initial concerns that we would struggle to find willing candidates, we have found that there’s an abundance of skilled, dynamic and committed Jewish women, just waiting to be asked.

We are determined to maintain this position and are extending the approach to our wider committees.

Our Business Dinner committee, traditionally a male bastion, has almost achieved a 50:50 split.

The value and positive impact of gender balanced boards has been well-researched, with proven gains to profitability and a reduction in risky decision making caused by groupthink. For World Jewish Relief it is essential that the female viewpoint is strongly represented at board level.

Our gender balanced board has a different dynamic too: I’ve seen an increasing openness to diverse views and more thoughtful and respectful debate of emotionally charged issues. 

And there’s never an assumption about who will make the tea.

At World Jewish Relief, we are now addressing the wider issue of diversity of thinking: gender balance is one aspect, but we are also conscious of balancing age and religious practice.  In this way we are better representing both our supporters and our beneficiaries.

Katerina Gould is a World Jewish Relief trustee and runs Thinking Potential, offering career consultancy and executive coaching with expertise in helping women back into employment after an extended career break.

This article was first published in the Jewish Chronicle on 08 March 2019

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