Gender gap rises in Israel as women's gains are offset by losses - analysis

Israel scores well for gender equality in health care, education, and labor force participation, but it lags behind in workplace advancement opportunities, sports, and the government.

 Women hold signs as they protest for women equality, in Tel Aviv on August 23, 2022.  (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
Women hold signs as they protest for women equality, in Tel Aviv on August 23, 2022.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

Israel's record for gender equality has fallen significantly over the past year, and while it has done relatively well in some areas, it is doing poorly in others, according to recent reports from the World Economic Forum and the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

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This year's WEF Global Gender Gap Report found that while Israel generally compares well to many Middle Eastern and North African countries on gender equality, it does not compare well to other developed countries. 

The report found that Israel fell from 60th place out of 146 countries in 2022 to 83rd place this year for gender equality. Israel had 72.7% gender parity overall in 2022, but this year it has only 70.1% gender parity.

 The rankings were obtained by measuring four areas: health and survival, educational attainment, economic participation and opportunity, and political empowerment. The WEF found that Israel did well in the first two categories but poorly in the second two.

The WEF said that Israel has 96% gender parity in health and survival, and the country rose to 109th place this year from 111th in 2022.

 Ben-Gurion University graduates. (credit: DANI MACHLIS/BGU)
Ben-Gurion University graduates. (credit: DANI MACHLIS/BGU)

Israel also ranked highly in gender equality in educational attainment, with the WEF saying it has full gender parity in schooling and literacy rates. In fact, Israeli women may be more educated than men, with 60% of Israeli students being female, and more women than men earning secondary and post-secondary degrees.

The Israeli business daily The Calcalist said the gender gap in education favors women in all demographics, including groups typically considered patriarchal, such as ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arab Israelis.

With regard to gender equality in the economy, the WEF said that Israeli women enjoy full or near-full equality in access to financial, civil, and political freedoms, and economic participation and opportunity. Nearly half of Israel’s total labor force is female.

The gender disparities plaguing Israel

However, Israel’s gender disparities primarily manifest in types of work and workplace seniority.

Fewer than 25% of members of the current Knesset are women. In addition, most of the female Knesset members are in the opposition, with only nine women among the 64 members of the ruling coalition. Only six out of 32 government ministers are female, and several religious parties in the coalition have no female members at all.

Inbal Orpaz, founder of the Women in Tech initiative, said that the current government has few female cabinet ministers or heads of government office.

In the labor force, the most glaring discrepancies are seniority-related. Only one-third of middle to senior managers in Israel’s private sector are women. While more Israeli women are entering science, technology, engineering, and math-related jobs, they still make up only a third of the country’s STEM labor force.

In 2022, the number of women in tech reportedly grew by 13%, while the number of men grew by 8%. However, given the starting gap, parity is still far away, Orpaz said. 

“These have been the numbers for about three decades, and they don’t really change,” she said.

The poor gender parity showings may be related to workplace culture. Speaking of women in American corporations, the McKinsey Women in the Workplace reports described a “broken ladder” in which companies failed “to promote and retain women in technical roles who are in the early stages of their careers,” resulting in fewer women being prepared for senior positions. 

Orpaz said the situation was similar in Israel.

“Women don't get opportunities to become junior managers,” she said, and when that step is missed, “you don't become a director, then a vice president, and then a CEO.”

Another possible explanation for the gap is what researchers call “gendered temperament,” with women tending to gravitate towards the humanities and focusing on “people,” while men gravitate towards the sciences or “things.”

Men are also statistically more likely to enter fields that may demand long hours, travel, or relocation.

Evidence for a “gendered temperament” comes from Scandinavian countries, where the gender gap in the types of jobs people choose persists, despite government efforts to level the field.

However, Alisa Eshet Moses, director of Israel’s Asian-Arab Chamber of Commerce and a leader in women’s empowerment projects, said this did not account for everything.

She said there are deeply ingrained cultures and traditions worldwide in religious and secular communities that often steer girls away from STEM jobs.

One of the most significant issues for women is childcare.

“Nobody wants to address the second part of women’s lives,” Moses said. 

But she said there is a clear difference in approaches to family responsibilities.

She said that at Intel, where she once worked, meetings would be regularly scheduled late in the evening, which employees with childcare responsibilities could not attend. Given that it is mostly women who care for the children, this affected female employees far more than male.

“For me, it was eye-opening to understand the impact of motherhood on women,” Orpaz said. “We must fix the family and how things work in society. It’s a huge challenge.”

One way to address the imbalance would be by equally funding childcare facilities and support programs for both men and women.

Israel has taken some steps in this respect. It is illegal for an employer to terminate a woman's employment because of pregnancy. After giving birth, a woman who has been at her job for at least 12 months is entitled to 26 weeks of maternity leave, 15 of them paid. The woman can trade some of her parental leave with her partner.

However, this generally still means that the man works while the woman is on extended leave, lowering her chances of advancing at work.

Support for gender parity in other Israeli sectors also lags. A new report commissioned by Yesh Atid Party Knesset member Simon Davidson found that just over 20% of Israeli sportspeople are women. Sportswomen are concentrated in track and field, gymnastics, and equestrian sports.

Davidson said that one factor contributing to this imbalance is a dearth of facilities and funding for female athletes, and this favoritism undermines the illusion of choice.

He said that when women must “play at difficult hours, or off-field,” and women’s practice and playing conditions “are worse than those of the men,” this helps explain why fewer women are playing games such as soccer.

“In Israel, if someone isn’t working on an issue every day, putting effort into it and drawing attention to it with constant reports and committees, things won’t budge,” Davidson said.

Moses said that Israel's short-lived governments have not set up long-term strategies and programs to dent Israel’s gender disparities.

“None of the [government] plans in Israel are long-term. They’re always for one, two, maybe three years, and then another government comes along,” she said.