Equal Treatment for Unequals

Noya Rimalt
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Noya Rimalt

The recent vote in the Knesset to delay the pension age for women to 64 and the age for men to 67 has once again placed the issue of whether it is right to continue the practice whereby only women have the choice whether to retire at the same age as men, or earlier, on the public agenda.

Many people, including Nehemia Strasler and Avirama Golan of Haaretz, have lambasted the decision which, they say, discriminates unfairly against men, calling on women's organizations to agree to its annulment. How can women demand equality in the work market when they enjoy such a privilege, those opposed to the vote ask.

It is a mistake to concentrate on the pension age of women and present it as the key to achieving equality for working women. Instead, it would be worthwhile for those who genuinely want to promote gender equality in the labor market to tackle the issues that hamper equality and perpetuate the social weakness of women. Statistics concerning the status of women in the Israel's labor market at the start of this century are dismal, according to a report published by the Adva Center about a year-and-a-half ago as well as other reports published by the Central Bureau of Statistics and the branch for promoting women in the civil service. While women constitute nearly half of the local labor market and a majority in the civil service, they are discriminated against both in terms of their jobs and salaries.

In the civil service, for example, there is a negative ratio between the number of women at a certain level and seniority at that level. Therefore, women are in the minority in all senior ranks, and the majority in the lower ranks. In December 2000, of the 540 employees with senior contracts, only 26 percent were women.

Women also earn less than men: The average income of a woman wage-earner is about 60 percent of that of a man. This is due not only to the relatively low ranks held by women, but also to the fact that women earn less than men even when they are employed at similar levels and jobs. Moreover, in sectors of the economy where women comprise the majority, such as education and welfare, the wages are among the lowest offered. The gap between women and men exists at all levels of education in all branches of the economy. Therefore, it is clear that the local labor market's structure basically discriminates against women.

Can all of these gaps be changed by equalizing the age at which women and men retire? Clearly, no. Equalizing the pension age will be beneficial mainly for employers, including the state, since it will enable them to enjoy cheap labor for a few additional years. Under these circumstances, the stirring call to women's organizations to join in the struggle to cancel the right of women to retire a few years before men is a mere mockery.

For there to be significant gender equality in the work force, there has to be significant reform in the Israeli labor market. There must be assurances that the levels of wages will express the value of the work done, and the labor market's structure must be adapted to the input of working parents. The employers should, for example, be obliged to provide workers with child care options from the earliest age, as part of work conditions. In addition, child care expenses should be tax-deductible. These are but a small part of the changes that will ensure women true equality of opportunity at work.

Until the state takes upon itself the promotion of such significant reform, the legislative arrangements about the retirement age for women will not make a difference either way. And contrary to the well-known stereotype, a significant number of women do not take advantage of the arrangement that permits them to retire earlier than men. Over the past 30 years, the time spent working by women has consistently grown. In 1999, women aged 55-64 constituted 35 percent of all women in the labor force. That same year, five percent of all working women were aged 65 and over. When such data are examined alongside wages, status and power of women in the work force during that same period, it becomes clear that raising the retirement age has not been accompanied by other necessary changes.

At the outset of the discussion, the feminist legal dialogue believed that women's status in society would be enhanced by their being imposed with legal rules similar to those pertaining to men; that is, "equal treatment for equals." However, the feminist dialogue has since awakened from this illusion. Equal treatment is given only to equals who are equal in every respect; giving equal treatment to those who have significantly less power in society only perpetuates the inferiority of the weak group. Promoting equality among two groups that are unequal in power, therefore, cannot lead to similar treatment. Under such circumstances, only a corrective and affirmative approach will lead to genuine equality.

Dr. Rimalt is a lecturer in Law and Feminism at Haifa University's Law Faculty.