Why is Int'l Women's Day important in Israel?

While it’s true that women are capable of achieving almost anything in Israel, it’s also true that they often don’t. Why? Is it because they simply don’t want to? Or are there other factors at play?

Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli, the only female current Knesset party leader running in the upcoming elections, speaks at a conference of the Israeli Television News Company in Jerusalem, on Sunday.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli, the only female current Knesset party leader running in the upcoming elections, speaks at a conference of the Israeli Television News Company in Jerusalem, on Sunday.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
As we celebrate International Women’s Day and take note of the incredible achievements women have made even over the last year, we must also take note of the gaping inequalities that exist and discuss why it matters. While it’s true that women are capable of achieving almost anything in Israel, it’s also true that they often don’t. Why? Is it because they simply don’t want to? Or are there other factors at play?
The status of women in Israel is often praised internationally because it was once considered very progressive. From women serving in the military, to women in business, to the third ever female prime minister in the world. After all, in the War of Independence, women were on the front lines fighting for the very existence of the Jewish state. Take for example the notorious sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who served in the Hagana as a sniper. Even prior to 1948, icons of Jewish feminism like Hannah Szenes parachuted into enemy lines and gave their lives for the Jewish state at a time such activity was almost unheard of for women.
But while these are fantastic achievements, Israel hasn’t really continued the tradition, at least recently. Of course there are women near the top in many industries, yet over 40 years after we once had a female prime minister, we have no viable prime ministerial candidates who are female today. Even worse, we have only one female current Knesset party leader in the upcoming election, our parliament is only 25% female, and at least two major factions (UTJ and Shas) prohibit women from running for office on their lists. Let’s not forget that many cabinet positions have never been held by a woman at all.
In the private sector, there are plenty of female CEOs and inspiring icons for women-led companies, but when we look at the statistics overall, women still account for only one in six CEOs. Indeed, while the rest of the world has continued to advance gender equality since the days Israel was progressive on women’s issues, Israel is actually going in the opposite direction.
In 2019, Israel ranked 54th in the world in terms of gender parity for lawmakers, according to the International Parliamentary Union, but in 2020, they dropped to 83rd. Women are 50% of the population yet men vastly outnumber women in the seats of power across industries.
In the last several years, Israel has perpetuated a system that overlooks the needs and rights of women in a way that builds on each previous step and makes it easier for issues impacting women to be left off the agenda – such as agunot, domestic violence, or sexual assault. Our government ignores the importance of female representation in decision-making as well, something that has been proven in multiple academic studies to have a direct relation to gender equality at all levels.
The problem is not that women can’t achieve great things in Israel, or even that they don’t want to, it’s that generally speaking, because of the cultural norms, they have to work harder for the same thing. It’s very easy to claim that there isn’t proportional representation of women in politics or other fields because they simply have different interests, and to some extent there are preferential biases. But statements like this are used as a convenient excuse for not working toward gender equality, even though it’s been shown that female representation is important for a robust and functioning democracy. According to research, when governments are more representative, the public trust is higher and the participation levels are higher.
The idea that women just aren’t interested also diminishes the role of society in educating and shaping what the expectations are for women and girls. If you educate a generation that men and women have equal responsibility to the family, and that men and women are both just as capable of being mathematicians, software developers, or scientists, then what you will receive is a more representative society across industries.
Today, there are many cultural barriers unique to women in leadership – such as the way women are treated in public life, particularly in politics. Whether we want to admit it or not, the price of being in politics is far higher for women than for men. These double standards exist in the private sector as well. Women who take command are labeled “difficult” while men are praised for being “assertive.” Similarly, women who need to care for children are perceived as not dedicated to work, but if a man does it he’s perceived as a good father. While some nations such as those in Scandinavia have implemented reforms to encourage both men and women to take an equal role in child-rearing, the mindset and expectations in Israel are very different.
None of these factors make it impossible for women to rise to the top, but they greatly contribute to the disproportionate numbers we see today, and we cannot begin to remedy the problem until we acknowledge that a social bias exists.
As half the population, we must demand a more representative seat at the table. A quarter of the Knesset isn’t enough, 16 percent of CEOs isn’t enough, and we shouldn’t be celebrating women’s rights in Israel when the country is going in the opposite direction. Until we see proportional representation for women in leadership, we will continue to see inequalities that pave the path for even further erosion of women’s rights.

The writer is the CEO of Social Lite Creative and a research fellow at the Tel Aviv Institute.