The announcement on October 7 that three African women have been awarded the
Nobel Prize instantly made news. Much has been made of the fact that they are
African, pro-democracy and religious, or any combination of these. But
every article, website and report highlighted the fact that they were
Women and Work. Women and Leadership. Women and Politics. I
have been listening to this debate my whole life. Are we up to it? Or as an
early male chauvinist pig (remember those?) once said to me, “If you can’t stand
the heat get back in the kitchen.”
When I was eight I wanted to be an
airline stewardess. I was told it would be too hard for me because “you will
This was in the era when TV women on programs like
and I Dream of Jeanie
had to have supernatural powers to have any
power at all.
I do not think the scriptwriters of the hit 1960’s series
were exaggerating when Joan – the glam office manager – showed a new
typewriter to Peggy – the clever secretary – and said, “Don’t be overwhelmed by
the technology. It looks complicated but the men who designed it made it simple
enough for a woman to use.”
I well remember people talking like
It’s not that the world has never had its share of strong women. It
has. No one could call Indira, Golda or Margaret shrinking violets. Today,
Hilary can show some attitude while Angela holds Europe in the palm of her
But what has really changed for the real women in Israel and
abroad? One sure sign of progress is the numerous name changes over the
What began as women’s emancipation over a hundred years ago
changed into women’s liberation, then became feminism.
In the workplace
and public life it has now morphed into gender equality and – for the really
progressive – diversity and inclusion.
Does this mean that, in the words
of the iconic Virginia Slims advert, “You’ve come a long way, Baby”? The
statistics, as always, are still fairly dismal.
Last month, The Economist
reported that the World Bank “Gender Equality and Development: World Development
Report 2012” points out that globally, women earn 10-30 percent less than men.
They are also concentrated in “women’s” jobs.
Annoyingly, economic growth
does not seem to narrow the gap.
Here in Israel, women may serve as bank
chiefs and even opposition leaders, but this is misleading. A 2009 survey by The
Manufacturers’ Association reports that 23% of all managers in Israel are women,
but that there are no women managers at all in around 66% of companies. Less
than 10% get to the highest levels of management.
Nobody in the West
disputes any more that women have got what it takes to lead, manage or make a
difference. The barriers of sexism and the lack of role models are no longer the
main barriers to women.
Rather it is the taking care of children that
women want or need to make time for that is the big obstacle. This means that
many women are on a bumpy work-life balance seesaw their whole lives.
co-chairwoman of the organization Digital Eve Israel, the largest women’s
professional networking group in the country, I have a ringside seat to watch
the balancing act of working women in the country at different stages of their
very busy lives.
That view has cemented my belief that working mothers
can be leaders. My colleagues on our Steering Board are among the most able and
focused women I have ever worked with. All are successful professionals, and all
have a bunch of kids at home.
Of our nearly 2800 members, 70% are
Israeli-born and 30% grew up abroad, including English speakers. Interestingly –
and flatteringly for both sides – about 15% of our members are men. Everything
related to work comes up on our online list: from the best social media practice
to great programming jobs to requests for business partners overseas. But often
the longest, strongly argued discussion threads relate to the old/new questions:
Can women have it all? Are men willing to promote and share in our success?
are battling the twin enemies of time and guilt, although we’re getting better
at it. The economic necessity that makes two salaries required for many
households in Israel is one reason why we may not be lagging too far behind. But
religion and its traditional roles for men and women are deeply rooted in
Israel. Particularly in the religious sector, that there is still some
ambivalence about women and leadership.
If that is still the case here,
how much more so must it be in Africa. This, of course, is what makes the
achievements of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakul Karman so
Can we imagine any of those three activist women from Africa
saying to herself as little girl, “One day I am going to win a Nobel Prize? Or a
black child telling himself that one day he would be president of the United
States? Old prejudices may die hard, but they do die.
So the search goes
on for that elusive equilibrium; fulfilling, rewarding work & pay with a
happy and healthy life. But there is good news. In the global race for great
talent, organizations are asking themselves hard commercial questions about
gender diversity and talent management. This is often corporate blah blah
for “how do we attract and retain good women in our company?”
One senior vice
president of human resources I coached at a technology giant faced this
challenge: In Israel that year, of the total number of computer engineering
graduates around 20% were women. The target set by her US management was that
they recruit the full 20% in that year’s intake. Not bad for a bunch of people
who used to get flummoxed by a new typewriter.
This shortage is even more
pronounced in emerging markets – the BRIC countries and much of Asia and Africa.
Companies need to develop the best-educated and best-prepared managers in those
markets, which increasingly means women. But let’s retain perspective. A recent
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) reports that Asia is “missing” about
96 million women due to discriminatory health care, female infanticide and
In the really progressive companies the business
case is frequently made that performance is better and markets better served by
diverse and inclusive companies. That means more women and family-friendly
Last month saw the release of the movie I Don’t Know How She
, based on Allison Pearson’s best-seller about a young mother/finance
executive trying to have it all. The movie stars Sara Jessica Parker, so we must
have made it to the mainstream.
At the same time, legislation exists or
is on its way to promote more women to the executive suite in Norway, Spain,
France and Germany. That means reserving board seats for women.
has been another intriguing development. We are only now beginning to fully
realize that when men and boys do not play a full part in the raising of
children and the running of the home it is they who lose out. They are
disenfranchised. The intriguing part is that they now seem to be
realizing it too.The writer is the director of First Class
(www.first-class.co.il), a leadership, communication & global working
consultancy & training company, and the co-chair of Digital Eve Israel.