The 14 women lighting the Independence Day torches Monday night on Mount Herzl have each made an important contribution to Israeli society, from the realm of sport in the case of Shahar Pe’er to furthering the education of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) women in the case of Adina Bar-Shalom, but the simple fact remains that Israel still remains very much a male-dominated society.
Out of 33 government ministers and deputy minister, only six are women and aside from Tzipi Livni, in her role as heading (the now-defunct) negotiations with the Palestinians, none of them hold what could really be classed as a senior portfolio. In the IDF, where reaching a senior command is often the stepping stone to a successful second career in business or politics, the only woman major-general, Orna Barbivai, is shortly to retire and no other woman officer looks likely to join the army’s general staff in the near future.
In fact, the only sector where women have truly broken through the glass ceiling is the banking and financial sector with, for example, Rakefet Russak- Aminoach serving as CEO of Bank Leumi, Anat Levin heading Migdal Insurance & Financial Holdings, Lilach Asher-Topilsky running the Israel Discount Bank and, of course Karnit Flug at the helm of the Bank of Israel.
But while these women are making a direct impact on the Israeli economy, Israeli women on the whole are earning far less than their male counterparts. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2012 the average monthly wage of women was 34 percent less than that of men – NIS 7,244 compared to NIS 10,953 for men.
The women’s advocacy group Catalyst meanwhile reported this year that the number of women winning senior managerial jobs in Israel’s top companies was slipping, with women holding only 31% of managerial positions in the 100 companies that comprised the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange’s TA-100 index in 2013, down from 34% the year before.
Having 14 women light the Independence Day torches is hardly going to change these statistics. What is needed is clear Knesset legislation aimed at promoting opportunities for women on the one hand and ensuring, on the other, that they are treated equally with their male counterparts once they get their feet behind the desk.
One such important piece of legislation was the amendment to the Equal Pay Law, passed earlier this year on International Woman’s Day, requiring certain types of employers to publicly report wages according to gender, and the government should be commended for this.
Following the amendment, public companies, non-government organizations and other bodies are now legally obligated to publicize employee wages and to make a distinction between men and women when reporting on salaries so as to enable better assessment, monitoring and action against gender-based discrimination in salaries. At the same time, legislative gaps still remain, such as the need for a law to expand women’s representation of company boards of directors, as is common in Europe.
ONE SYMBOLIC act, however, that could do much to improve the status of women in Israel would be the appointment of a woman as the next president of Israel. Aside from choosing the best-placed candidate to form a government after elections and signing presidential pardons, the president has no real power, but whoever sits in the President’s Residence in Jerusalem still has an ideal bully pulpit from which to send a strong message both internally to Israel’s citizens and externally to the world.
There is no reason why this position should be reserved for politicians looking for one last job in the limelight. Whoever is elected to succeed Shimon Peres will find themselves trying to replace the irreplaceable and so it makes sense to break the mold of a former senior politician seamlessly moving out of the Knesset and into the president’s office.
And among the candidates vying to replace Peres, one person stands out: former Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner.
During her tenure on the court, Dorner made a reputation as an ardent advocate of human rights, emphasizing the importance of the individual over the collective (in her ruling requiring the military authorities to allow personalized epitaphs on soldiers’ headstones), and insisting on equality for homosexuals (in the case of the right of an El Al cabin attendant to receive a plane ticket for his partner).
Following her retirement from the bench, Dorner has been an important spokesman for freedom of expression in her role as president of the Israeli Press Council.
Dorner would make an excellent president, not because she’s a woman, but because of the qualities she embodies: sharp intellect, concern for the individual and a clear vision of Israel as a liberal, democratic state in which all its citizens are equal.
In this era of growing intolerance of the other among the country’s nationalistic politicians, Israel badly needs a president who can set the moral compass for the country to follow. The fact that she’s a woman is simply a bonus.
The writer is a former editor-inchief of The Jerusalem Post.