Opinion |

El Al May Unseat Them, but Women in Israel Fly the Plane

David Rosenberg
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David Rosenberg

It pains me as a journalist to say that the last place you should learn about social trends is by reading news headlines.

For example, you might be under the impression that Israeli women are being pushed back into second-class citizenship, based on two back-to-back incidents in the last few days – one in which El Al Airlines moved two women from their seats to accommodate Haredi men who refused to sit next to them; and another in which the courts ordered Tel Aviv to allow separate seating at a ultra-Orthodox rally in Rabin Square.

Neither incident reflects the real attitudes of Israeli society toward women, except to the degree that society agrees to accommodate the demands of a minority of ultra-Orthodox Jews who have a very different value system.

Alas, on the issue of women, in some aspects Haredim have indeed gone backwards,  coming up with new “traditions” like segregated  buses and sidewalks. But for the other 90% of non-Haredi Israel, the metrics tell another story.

Politically correct statistics

Before looking at these numbers, dispense with the idea that anywhere where women don’t account for 50% of the group is a sign of sexism. It could be, but it doesn’t have to be. While the great majority of women (and probably men) accept the basic feminist idea that women are equal to men and should have the same opportunities, the average woman builds her life on personal choices, not to help create politically correct statistics.

Every young woman who chooses medicine or law means one less for computer science.

So on the one hand, 80% of those pursuing a teaching degree in Israel are women while women account for only between 29% and 36% of those studying computer science, math or physics.

On the other hand, in 2016 (the latest year for which statistics are available), women accounted for 59% of the Israelis studying medicine. They accounted for 51% of law students and 56% of those studying business. In the sciences, they account for two-thirds of those studying biology.

The bottom line is that women account for 58% of those enrolled for bachelor’s degrees at Israeli institutes of higher education. They account for 62% of those getting a master degree and 53% of those pursuing a doctorate.

Married with a lot of children

No one becomes chairwoman of the board or cabinet minister upon graduation, but the direction is clear. Already, a third of the current Knesset is female; four out of 15 Supreme Courts Justices are women (including the president); three of Israel’s top five banks are led by women as are half of the top jobs at the Bank of Israel, including its governor.

Figures from the OECD show that Israeli women account for about 35% of all management positions, which is slightly above the average for the organization in 2015.

Where Israeli women are starkly underrepresented is the army and high-tech, two of Israel’s key sectors, but if they are overrepresented in law, finance and medicine or are about to be, it doesn’t seem like a pressing national concern but a function of choice individual women are making.

On pay equality, Israel comes out looking less good: Israeli women were earning just 78% of what men make as of 2015, versus an average of 86%. That was the eighth widest gap among the 45 countries surveyed by the OECD.

I haven’t studied the correlation but the wide wage gap that there is Israel may well be connected with the large number of children Israeli women have, compared to the European sisters, even among non-religious Israelis.

From time you meet wonder woman like Helena Morrissey who has nine of them and manages a trillion dollar investment portfolio. But for the average non-Amazon, more children mean fewer hours to work and fewer career-advancement prospects.

Israeli women are as educated and connected to the wider world as much as anyone; a decision to have more children is theirs (and their partners), not a function of ignorance, lack of choices, or blind adherence to tradition. Unless that changes, the feminist dream of seeing women match men on each and every equality metric isn’t going to happen.

Even in the ultra-Orthodox world, which remains the big black hole of gender equality, the situation in changing, albeit slowly and with no one publicly admitting to it.

Among working-age Haredi women, the number holding jobs has jumped from about 49% in 2000 to 78% in 2015, close to the rate for other Jewish women. Haredi girls get a much better secular education than boys, and among the few Haredim who pursue a college degree, the rate is much higher among women than for men.

It is true that in the ultra-Orthodox world education, work and pay mean a lot less than they do elsewhere. Torah knowledge, yeshiva learning and the authority of rabbis still count for a lot more. But education and economics have a way of worming themselves into the values even in the most ideologically grounded communities. It will just take longer.

French immigrants arriving on El Al to Israel: The women may find more possibilities than expected.Credit: JACK GUEZ / AFP