Fewer Women Promoted to Top Military Brass Since Chief of Staff Kochavi Appointed

Yaniv Kubovich
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Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi.
Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi.Credit: David Bachar
Yaniv Kubovich

There has been significant atrophy in the advancement and appointment of women to the senior ranks in the Israeli military in the two years since Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi's appointment, according to defense officials and analysis of data from the military spokesperson.

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Kochavi has made several rounds of appointments to the General Staff since becoming chief of staff in January of 2019, but no woman under his command has reached the rank of general. Besides the glass ceiling that remains over the heads of the military’s most senior female officers, their salaries are stagnating. Wages Commissioner Kobi Bar-Natan recently released data for Israel’s security organizations showing that the gender gap in pay in the military is 27 percent in favor of men. One of the reasons for this gap is the placement of women in less remunerative positions.

Last week, Kochavi announced a list of appointments to the army’s prestigious General Staff, none of which involved women. Two generals were promoted to new positions, and three received the more exciting news that they would receive a promotion in rank and join the small circle of the senior command.

“If the army were heading in the right direction regarding the promotion of women as senior brass, we’d see the opposite trend,” said a senior security source. “The committees discussing senior appointments were limited groups who fought together as junior officers, who with whispers try to arrange the puzzle in a fashion that won’t hurt those close to them.”

The Israel Defense Forces spokesperson’s office denied the allegations, commenting, “The IDF, and the chief of staff at its head, puts great importance on promoting women in service, while ensuring operational efficiency and achieving victory, and while recognizing the importance of diversity among decision makers.”

Defense officials told Haaretz, in contrast, that Kochavi doesn’t hide his preference for promoting combat officers, namely men, to senior positions. A defense source said that in one discussion with senior army officials about appointments, the chief of staff said, “My role is to win wars, and I need the best and most committed.” The source, who attended the discussion, questioned whether women aren’t committed to winning in war. “A female officer faces several major obstacles today,” the source said. “First and foremost, she’s a woman who needs to compete with men for quality positions. She's not a combat soldier, and in our era, neither is she from the paratroops – which leaves her with no chance, without having someone advocating for her directly to the chief of staff.”

Orna Barbibai, the only female Major General ever to serve in the General Staff, in 2011.Credit: IDF Spokesperson

Numbers back these claims. IDF figures show that 14 generals have been promoted within the General Staff since Kochavi took over. Eight of them were promoted from brigadier general to major general, and six others, who were already major generals, were placed in other jobs known as “broad positions” (an officer has to hold two such roles at their current rank to get promoted to the next one). Not one female major general was appointed during this period. The only female major general serving in the General Staff forum has been Orna Barbibai, from 2011 to 2014.

Kochavi has approved the appointment of 67 officers at the brigadier general level, 44 of whom – including just one woman – received promotions in rank. During this time, 23 brigadier generals were placed in the so-called broad positions. There are now six female brigadier generals in the army, one fewer than in 2017 and 2018, constituting 5 percent of all serving brigadier generals. Senior military officials assert that only two of the six are serving at the grade and rank of brigadier general. They say the others are effectively colonels, and that the rank given them is just for show.

The picture is similar among colonels. Women have accounted for only 19 of 175 colonels appointed or promoted since January of 2019. Ninety-six men landed broad positions during this period, compared to seven women. The rate of women among IDF colonels varies between 8 percent and 10 percent. In comparison, there were 40 female colonels in 2017 and 36 in 2018.

Data provided to the Knesset and the press indicate that the percentage of female lieutenant colonels declined in 2020 by 2 percent from 2019, when it was above 20 percent. Women now comprise 18 percent of all lieutenant colonels.

‘Moving backwards’

Women have served in the IDF since its founding in 1948, and many obstacles preventing them from serving in various positions were removed in recent decades. Women make up 29 percent of soldiers doing compulsory service. The percentage of female combat soldiers shot up by around 160 percent over the last five years. Some 18 percent of all women in the military serve in professional roles that oblige a similar length of service and reserve duty as men. Women constitute around 40 percent of the officers among conscripts and around 27 percent of all ranking officers.

One of the senior roles for which women were competing is commander of the Manpower Directorate. Two candidates deemed especially appropriate for this job, which requires a great deal of professional knowledge, were the chief of staff of the Manpower Directorate headquarters, Brig. Gen. Meirav Kirshner, and the head of the chief of staff’s bureau, Brig. Gen. Michal Teshuva. They both spent their entire service in the directorate and know it inside and out. Yet the one who got the nod was Gen. Yaniv Asur, who served as commander of the Golani Brigade and the 91st Division, and most recently as Operations Division commander. Asur’s experience does not include any time in the Manpower Directorate, and he will have to learn the system in the coming months.

Brig. Gen. Meirav Kirshner in a State Audit Knesset committee in 2015.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

More junior female officers say that there is a tendency to appoint male officers to broad positions in jobs that until a few years ago were designated for women and offered a springboard for their promotion in the military. “Today, a male lieutenant general can come to the technology and logistics branch and to positions that were once thought of as being only for women,” says a female officer. “He stays a year or two, receives the rank and moves on to the field or to operational units. You can see more and more men and male combat soldiers in offices that until now had female officers, who could be getting ahead, in them.”

Kirschner and Teshuva are among a long line of female officers who have attained promising accomplishments. On the occasion of International Women’s Day, the military published on its website an article on “pioneering women,” highlighting Lt. Col. Efrat Kikov, who was appointed last year to the command of the artillery corps’ Thunder Battalion; Col. R, who was appointed in 2019 to be the first head of the information security department; Brig. Gen. Meirav Brickman, who was appointed in 2019 as head of the Supply Center and the first woman in the Equipment Center command; and Col. N., who was appointed that same year as Central Command intelligence officer. However, the “pioneering” that the army is so proud of doesn’t translate into promotions to more senior positions.

“What is especially worrying is the fact that today, 92 percent of roles in the army are also open to women,” says a security source regarding the statistics. “We are only moving backwards.” He notes that the declining number of female brigadier generals, colonels and even lieutenant colonels will have an impact in the near future on women and young officers' desire to continue serving. “They see there is a clear line at which their chances to compete for a position, not matter how good they are, will be extremely dim,” he bemoans. “They understand that if they weren’t in ambushes together with the generals from the paratroops, Golani, Givati, they’ll never be able to be one of them on the General Staff forum.”

Many officers of all ranks are calling for a change in the way senior military appointments are decided upon. They insist that the decision of appointing women should not be in the hands of one man. “It’s not like it was amazing before Aviv Kochavi,” one security source saus. “Kochavi has in a way taken us back a little in the past two years, but his predecessors over the years weren’t paragons of feminism and equal opportunity between men and women.”

An IDF soldier in military training, in 2016.Credit: JACK GUEZ / AFP

The military commented that “men and women serve as one, in a wide variety of roles, professions and ranks. Promoting career officers based on their suitability for the job is a supreme value in the IDF.” It added that the military and the General Staff ascribe “great importance to promoting the service of women,” and that “a number of goals have been set in this regard.” It noted that the General Staff headed a special evaluation of the situation in 2020 and concluded that the military should increase the extent of women serving in all ranks, and that it should operate according to the principle of “more women in more roles,” with an emphasis on integrating women into key roles and senior ranks. “It was also decided that in places where two equal candidates are competing, the woman will be preferred,” it stated. “Likewise, it was decided that there should be develop … flexible and conformed service tracks that will allow a mixture between field and headquarter positions in order to enable finding the best of the best women in the service. Since 2000, the number of female colonels in the army more than tripled, from 12 to 42.”

Senior defense officials and analysis of data from the IDF spokesperson indicate significant atrophy in the advancement and appointment of women to the senior ranks from lieutenant-colonel and above during this period.

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