What if you were a woman entering a business conference in order to hear speeches the mayor of a city, a government finance minister and the CEO of a major bank, but were turned away at the door because you were female and the audience was limited only to men “for modesty reasons”? One might expect such a thing to happen in Saudi Arabia or Iran. But it happened last week in Jerusalem.
Women expressed anger, frustration and disgust after they were barred from entering a “management forum” held by ultra-Orthodox newspaper Hamodia. Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Bank Hapoalim CEO Zion Keinan were among those speaking at the conference.
It wasn’t only secular women — but also Orthodox businesswomen — who were turned away, and complained about the treatment. One told Ynet that it was “humiliating and incomprehensible.” The event was not advertised or promoted as an exclusively single-sex affair.
The organizers of the conference defended itself by saying that the event “was a private function for a public with certain values,” and pointed out that the newspaper also held women-only conferences.
Much of the criticism centered around the fact that the building was co-owned by the Jerusalem municipality and the Jewish Agency. With gender segregation a hot-button issue in Jerusalem, with ongoing controversy over separating genders on public buses and even on the streets in Haredi neighborhoods, criticism was hurled at the city for allowing this event to take place on public property.
The municipality issued a statement saying, “We see nothing wrong with a private Haredi body renting an auditorium in the city for a private function, matching the needs of its target audience in its nature. Our inquiry revealed that this was a private and closed event of Hamodia newspaper for Haredi institution managers. The newspaper rented the auditorium, and the only people allowed to enter were those invited by the newspaper. Officials who were not invited were not allowed in, regardless of whether they were men or women.”
So if the conference hadn’t been held in a publicly owned facility — and the fact that it was limited to men made clear from the outset — would banning women have been acceptable? Should the public officials have accepted their invitations to speak? If ultra-Orthodox executives uncomfortable networking with women aren’t going to attend mainstream conferences, should they be barred from holding their own privately sponsored sex-segregated events? If so, should comparable women-only events also be outlawed?
While it’s clear that this particular instance was flawed and problematic, the overall question of whether business events aimed at a sector that accepts gender segregation should be permitted to discriminate on the basis of gender isn’t so simple.