Tziona Koenig-Yair
Tziona Koenig-Yair Photo by Yael Engelhart
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Tziona Koenig-Yair is the first national commissioner of Israel's Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, which is part of the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry ("It's a great privilege" ). She was appointed to the post in January 2008 by Eli Yishai, who controlled the ministry at the time.

Prior to her appointment, Koenig-Yair served as executive director of the Israel Women's Network, an advocacy group for women's rights, and as a criminal prosecutor in the State Prosecutor's Office. She was born in the United States and immigrated to Israel with her family at the age of 11.

In the Israel of 2010, is it really necessary to monitor any discriminatory hiring or promotion practices?

I can answer that in the affirmative. The most important place where it is necessary to examine how women are integrated into the workplace is actually their promotion. In both the civil service and the private sector we see that women are not represented in senior management positions. They have not yet taken their rightful place. The rightful place for women should be based on the professional field in which they work, as well as on the male-to-female ratio in that geographic region, the cultural background and education.

If at a school for a certain subject, 80 percent of the students are women but women are underrepresented in the management of that field, that will raise a big red flag for me.

In the Knesset yesterday, data were presented showing that 12.4 percent of sexual harassment that was reported to crisis centers referred to workplace harassment, and 58.4 percent of the incidents involved a boss or authority figure. To what extent does the sexual objectification of women have an effect on the conditions of their employment?

In general, there is still prejudice about women in the workplace [though] the situation is much better than it was 20, or even 10, years ago. I don't know how to explain where that comes from. I don't know if it's chauvinism or a kind of objectification of women. There is still prejudice against women. At a job interview these days, women are asked how many children they have. When do they ask a man such a question? The fact that women have not found their rightful place constitutes a loss for society, it's a loss of human capital and it's a loss to the economy.

I can say it is directly connected to the division of parental responsibility in the home environment. Until such time as Israeli society gives some serious thought to the division of parental responsibility between men and women, we will not be able to effect significant change.

Is there a chance of significantly changing the way parental responsibilities are divided in Israel?

It has been done in the Scandinavian countries. I admit that Israel isn't Scandinavia. But there, men are given incentives to take leave after a birth and to bear parental responsibility. If a man was given leave after a birth in Israel, or received added payment on condition that he took leave then, this could help move things forward.

Has the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission made any inroads in the employment of women since it was set up two years ago?

I can say unequivocally that today, two years after starting this job - and I will be able to say the same after three years - the commission is not able to effect any change at all without cooperation from employers. I see the position of the commissioner as a catalyst for processes of this kind. I try to link up the different parties so as to encourage the employers and the organizations. To spread the message and to make information available is part of our job. In addition to enforcement, of course.

How is the commission supposed to promote equality between men and women in the workplace?

It is possible to turn to us for legal advice. In certain cases, we pay for legal representation in court. But that is a minority of cases. So far, we have paid for about 15 cases at this point, out of some 800 applications, including applications from employers. We can receive data from employers and analyze it, to see, for example, how many workers were hired at a company in a given year, and offer our services for implementing a program for equal work opportunities. We have a very interesting project from the European Union that supplies us with experts on different subjects. They provide us with their experience and we produce training programs for employers.

What should women - or anyone who experiences discrimination in the workplace - do if they want to make use of the commission's services?

The commission is a government body that was set up to enforce civil law, not criminal law, and offers assistance to those who ask for it. You can go to our website to get information about how to approach the commission. Someone who is harassed, a woman who encounters hostility because she had to go out to get fertility treatment, for example, can approach us. We meet with the person and offer advice, including a letter to the employer requesting a clarification.

But simply by turning to you, the victim who complains about his employer is likely to jeopardize his job. Is that not so?

I have no doubt that people are taking a risk by coming to us or any other group when they suffer discrimination. We know the situation. Everyone has to make up his own mind. There's no doubt that the best way is to arrange matters vis a vis the employer.

What have you achieved so far?

We have at least four cases related to women's employment that ended with compensation. In one case, the woman received more than NIS 100,000. In another, a pregnant woman who was not hired at a chain store that sells maternity wear was compensated to the tune of NIS 30,000. Not much time has elapsed since we began our work, but we have certainly accomplished something in that time.