Politics, Sex & Gender

Gender oppression rages on and the myth of merit

The JTA has a remarkable spread on issues of gender oppression and inequity in the Jewish world that was stirred by The Jewish Agency for Israel’s Jewish People’s Policy Planning Institute, which was founded in 2002, and mandated to conduct policy planning for the Jewish people.

Given that the gathering is so important in terms of the high profile and renown of the participants, as well as the themes and purposes of such a gathering, the omission of women constitutes a glaring gap,” Ellenson wrote to Ross. “How can matters of Jewish identity, relations with Israel, the influence of Islam, etc., be discussed when half the Jewish community is not represented?”
In a memo to the institute, Bronznick asked: “Given the extraordinary number of women who have assumed significant positions in every sector, every field, and every country, why is it so difficult for the Jewish community to identify women when it convenes leadership groups?”
Some argue that qualified female candidates are few and far between.
According to a new report conducted by Steven Cohen, a professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, women are underrepresented in top federation positions. The study was commissioned jointly by Bronznick’s organization and the UJC’s Mandel Center for Leadership Excellence.
No woman served as a federation executive in any of the 19 largest American cities in 2005, the study found. In fact, the number of women nationwide who occupied executive director positions in federations dropped five percent nationally from 2004 to 2005.

Along with the article is an op-ed by Deborah E. Lipstadt, director of Emory University’s Rabbi Donald Tam Institute for Jewish Studies, who was quoted in the article that “gender bias is ‘a problem endemic to this institution,’ comparing the institute’s strategic planning to ‘a bunch of frat boys sitting around and deciding what the future of the university will be.'”
The JTA also gave Avinoam Bar-Yosef, director of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, an opportunity to respond–and not surprisingly, Bar-Yosef spins the issue into one of merit, not gender oppression.
Well, ok, lets talk about merit, and I’ll quote one of my favorite scholars, Lani Guinier:

The conventional understanding of meritocracy is that it is a system for awarding or allocating scarce resources to those who most deserve them. The idea behind meritocracy is that people should achieve status or realize the promise of upward mobility based on their individual talent or individual effort. It is conceived as a repudiation of systems like aristocracy where individuals inherit their social status.
I am arguing that many of the criteria we associate with individual talent and effort do not measure the individual in isolation but rather parallel the phenomena associated with aristocracy; what we’re calling individual talent is actually a function of that individual’s social position or opportunities gained by virtue of family and ancestry. So, although the system we call “meritocracy” is presumed to be more democratic and egalitarian than aristocracy, it is in fact reproducing that which it was intended to dislodge.
Michael Young, a British sociologist, created the term in 1958 when he wrote a science fiction novel called The Rise of Meritocracy. The book was a satire in which he depicted a society where people in power could legitimate their status using “merit” as the justificatory terminology and in which others could be determined not simply to have been poor or left out but to be deservingly disenfranchised.

One of the strongest arguments of Guinier’s interview is this: “The problem with this argument is that it pits diversity as a counterpoint to merit. And, the argument is not strong enough to counter the belief in “merit” as an egalitarian and democratic way to allocate scarce resources. I am arguing that there are fundamental flaws in the over-reliance on these supposedly objective indicators of merit. This approach positions poor people and people of color as the problem rather than problematizing the ways we measure merit in the first place.”
And I think that this applies directly to this issue, and to the inherent flaw in Bar-Yosef’s response.
cross-posted to jspot

6 thoughts on “Gender oppression rages on and the myth of merit

  1. The issue of gender equality is one that I think does not get anough attention, and I’m thrilled to see that sites like jspot and jewschool are addressing it, and speaking up so that the Jewish world is inspired to run with more than a “tradition, tradition” planning strategy. Thanks!

  2. There is a disproportional representation of mediocre executives of both genders.
    Many more talented women and men are needed in order to revamp the entire federation system, which is in most cases a disaster.
    And yes, the people with the money, that sit on the boards are mostly men, and they are part of the sexist society we live in.
    Many of the people that actually make the Fderations tick, move, do anything are women. It is tough work, without good compensation, and as always, without Jewish women, we would be noplace.
    Good shabbos Ya’ll

  3. Cole,
    You expressed disappointment that there weren’t more comments on your post, and did not seem to consider that my linking to your post was out of my own wish to give your post a nod of inter-blog solidarity for expressing a different perspective on the issue within our site. I didn’t add specific comment about this post on my own because I didn’t want to be too contentious, but I probably should have written a more explicit link, and I would like to apologize for not doing so, as you twice repeated your feelings of being slighted, I will comment here now as you requested you would like to see more discussion here, okay? Please don’t take this the wrong way. I am trying to accomodate your demands on a personal if not political level, because I recognize your voice as an important part of our site’s discourse and varied perspectives, even if the feeling is not mutual.
    So. You wrote,
    “I am arguing that there are fundamental flaws in the over-reliance on these supposedly objective indicators of merit.”
    I would never say there aren’t flaws. My concern is that these flaws are not being remedied with less flaws, but that the remedies being advocated will create worse flaws.
    Certainly as you noted, class, gender, and race contribute to an uneven distribution of wealth and opportunity. I agree, even if it isn’t always easy to accurately measure.
    The problem for me is that a system of reverse discrimination which seeks to “redress” these issues does not obviate race, gender, and class, but rather, increases their importance as factors. And I have no reason to want that. For me, that’s even worse. I want less of that stuff, not more. And you are offering more.

  4. The problem is more that your privilege allows you to see it as “reverse” discrimination–there is no such thing. The fact that you think of it in that light is inherently the problem. And you have the privilege to think of it without having to think about a lot of those issues–what is it that you’re afraid of? or more so, what exactly are you trying to propose? Do you actually believe that you do not have to look at issues historically and deal with them? Do you think you cannot look at how this country was built on slave labor, indentured servitude, immigration laws and race laws that codified bodies based on capital interest and capital gain and not think that this continues to inform things today?

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