For Female Israeli Soldiers, the Army's Glass Ceiling Is 'Starting to Crack'

Seven percent of women in Israeli army now in combat units, the same percentage as in clerical roles.

A Karakal battalion female soldier preparing for training exercise, 2015.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The number of female army recruits opting for combat service in the Israel Defense Forces has more than doubled over the last four years, according to data obtained by Haaretz.

In 2012, just 3 percent of female recruits entered combat service. This year, though, the figure rose to 7 percent.

Next year, when the army opens its fourth mixed-gender combat battalion, the number is expected to rise even higher.

The army’s Manpower Directorate said it has no problem filling the available combat slots for women. And the women who choose combat service are “full of motivation,” a senior female officer added.

Aside from the mixed-gender infantry battalions, woman can do combat service in the Border Police; the aerial defense corps; the air force, and other units. The army is now considering opening up additional options – including letting women serve in tanks, as drivers of heavy vehicles in the combat engineering corps, and aboard Sa’ar 6 missile ships in the navy.

Moreover, as the number of women serving in combat positions has risen, the number relegated to clerical positions has plummeted. Data show that just 7 percent of female recruits were assigned to clerical positions this year, making this the first time the percentage of women in combat has matched the percentage of women serving as clerks and secretaries.

In 1998, one out of every four female recruits performed clerical work. But by 2008 that proportion had dropped to 14 percent, and eight years later it is just half that.

This is partly because the army has cut many clerical positions. But it’s also because more of the remaining clerical jobs are being done by men.

Most clerical jobs are still done by women, though; only 2 percent of male recruits are assigned to such work. But whereas in 1998 women filled 94 percent of all clerical posts, that figure had dropped to 71 percent by 2008 and an estimated two-thirds today.

Female members of the IDF's Armored Corps during a Memorial Day event in Latrun, May 2016.
Gil Cohen-Magen

“The organizing principle is that people should do meaningful service, and that as many of them as possible should occupy professional positions,” the senior female officer explained. “Today, fewer than 10 percent of those who serve are in clerical jobs – 7 percent of women and 2 percent of men.”

The IDF measures women’s service by these two indices – the percentage filling clerical jobs and the percentage serving in combat roles – because the former symbolizes women’s “traditional” role, while the latter reflects the entry of women into new professions that were previously closed to them.

The senior officer noted that this is “a long process, but we’re much further ahead than we were a decade ago – and certainly than we were in the IDF’s early years. In my view, the glass ceiling is beginning to crack.”

The change is evident both in the growing number of female staff officers with the rank of colonel, and the growing number of young female combat officers, she added.