Haifa university
Students participating in the Haifa University preparatory program. Photo by Yaron Kaminsky
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Although women in Israel are more highly educated on average than men, they are very much underrepresented in senior university faculty positions, and now the Council for Higher Education is trying to address the problem. In 2010, women represented 60 percent of master's degree recipients, a new high, but among the country's full professors, only 15 percent are women.

In a first effort of its kind, the higher education council's planning and budgeting committee recently approved an action plan on the issue that was developed by a team headed by Rivka Carmi, who is chairman of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and also chairs the Committee of University Heads.

The document, which has been obtained by Haaretz and will be distributed shortly to the country's institutions of higher education, contains a range of directives designed to address barriers to the advancement of women in academia. Among the issues considered in the report are steps necessary to accommodate family obligations and child-rearing responsibilities.

The plan also recommends the appointment of advisers to university presidents for the advancement of women, and proposes that institutions of higher learning adopt a commitment to proper representation of women on administrative committees. It also calls for annual statistical reports to be issued on representation of women at each school.

Carmi called the document "historic" because, she said, it represents the first time the institutions are recognizing that there is a problem and are dealing with it.

When it comes to teaching faculty, the more senior a university faculty position is, the less likely that it is being filled by a woman. While 48 percent of the junior position of university lecturer are women, 36 percent of senior lecturers are women. Moving up the hierarchy, only 26 percent of associate professors are female and 15 percent of the most senior faculty - full professors - are women. There are 210 female full professors and 1,239 men.

Other than in fields involving medical support and education, the representation of women among full professors falls short of 30 percent in every field of study. At 26 percent, the overall representation of women among academic faculty is relatively low compared to the European Union average of 38 percent. In some countries reaches 50 percent.

In 2010, according to data from the Knesset Research and Information Center and the Council for Higher Education that Haaretz obtained, more than 56 percent of those studying for a bachelor's degree were women. Among master's degree students, the figure rose to more than 58 percent. There has been a particularly notable rise in the proportion of the country's doctoral students who are female - from 32 percent in 1980 to about 53 percent during the 2010-2011 academic year. The number of female students pursuing university degrees has increased markedly since 1980, and since 1990, women have constituted more than half of all bachelor's and master's degree students in Israel.

But when broken down into fields of study, women are particularly poorly represented among doctoral students in engineering, at 12.5 percent and among Ph.D. candidates in the fields of math, computer science and the physical sciences, they constitute less than 25 percent of the students.

The choice of academic field by women is a reflection of social influences not cognitive differences, according to Kadima MK Ronit Tirosh, who is a former Education Ministry director general. She said the disparities between men and women in various fields in academia prove that the education system must encourage girls to branch out in their school studies before they get to university, even in fields that have a reputation of attracting "nerds," as she put it.