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When Old-fashioned Male Chauvinism Pretends to Be New Feminism

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Tel Aviv University campus.
Tel Aviv University campus.Credit: Aviad Bar-Ness

Once upon a time, everything was clear: Most men were “simply male chauvinists,” the good women were “not feminists, but...” and a handful of bad women were “extremist and aggressive” feminists. The result? Eleven out of Israel’s 12 prime ministers thus far have been male, more than 80 percent of professors are men, and so on.

So how lucky we are to live in an age where the good citizens have changed the rules, and everyone’s a feminist! But here’s the thing: that’s not the way it actually works. 

First, the facts. Three female members on the search committee tasked with choosing a rector for Tel Aviv University recommended a female candidate. The four men on the committee recommended a man, and they won by virtue of being in the majority. 

Late last month, the male candidate was approved when just 63 percent of the university senate voted in favor of his appointment. 

On the face of it, this is a story about the failure to select a female rector for Tel Aviv University, following an apparently democratic process. In reality, though, it’s the old pattern of blocking women, as enacted by a part of Israeli society that considers itself enlightened.

The senate meeting to approve or reject the committee’s selection perfectly reflects the new male feminism. (We won’t identify anyone by name, but according to the first named author of this op-ed, everything written here accurately represents the substance of what was said at the meeting.)

There wasn’t a single person at the meeting who didn’t declare their support for feminism. The result: For the 15th out of 16 times, the university will be led by a male rector. Go figure what the actual difference is between the old male chauvinism and the new feminism. In a nutshell, this new “male feminism” amounts to chauvinism now, feminism later. 

Let’s start with the “later.” The meeting was characterized by an abundance of male proclamations of heartfelt commitment to feminism. But somehow these commitments were always limited to their good intentions. When called to advance women, well, they gave at the office. 

The verb of the hour in the calls for feminist action was “should” – an ideal verb for the new feminist, because it doesn’t say who is going to remove the discrimination. It certainly doesn’t commit the speaker to take any action, but simply recommends an action to be taken by someone, sometime. As it happens, now is not the right time (and it’s worth noting here that the next time the rector’s position opens up is likely to be years down the line). And, besides, “Why don’t you just accept the president’s position?” we were scolded.

To vote against the decision of the committee and president would be nothing short of “burning down the house,” the democracy lovers in the senate declared.

Obviously, this wasn’t the right time or place for the promised land of feminism. Instead, we got to experience the good old male chauvinism. First, they said you really can’t rely on women. They’re emotional and they’re liars. (This was actually said of two of the three female committee members, one of whom was dismissed as having presented an “alternative reality”.) 

We were also treated to some mansplaining: In order to win the lottery, you have to buy a ticket. Well, we’ve bought plenty of tickets: The majority of students at every level (B.A., M.A. and Ph.D.) are female.

Maybe it’s because only a minority of us meet the basic requirements (women account for only 18 percent of full professors)? Or maybe it’s because it was clear the choice this time targeted a rector from the sciences – disciplines that are not overflowing with women? 

And why are women in such a minority there? Go ahead and ask. The emotional women respond by quoting research from leading scientific journals that point to an unconscious bias against women in academia, on the part of both men and women. 

The merit-based arguments for the female candidate, voiced by both men and women, were airily dismissed by the (male) evaluator. He preferred his “overall impression” – based on experience. Ah. The “overall impression” once again, which reinstates the old boys’ network and undermines women and minorities.

Only a policy of affirmative action for women and minorities, instead of the current preferential system favoring white men, will defeat this. This is not about appointing a woman with inferior qualifications as a favor to women, as we have been told. Rather, affirmative action amounts to removing obstacles placed in the path of women, as the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once said.

Second, says the old chauvinism: Better a double standard than a single standard for women and men. When certain committee members voted for the male candidate, they unanimously chose him based on his merits. It’s just by coincidence that these were the four men. When the three female members voted unanimously for the female candidate, their vote must have been clouded by gender bias. They insisted they had voted based on the candidate’s many merits, rather than privileging her gender. To no avail. By definition females are biased. Males are objective.   

These new “feminist but…” men are maybe pleasing to the ear, but when it comes to the advancement of women – there’s none.

The only bright spot at the senate meeting was the sense that something had happened, a shoe had finally dropped. In an unprecedented and auspicious move, many male and female professors spelled out their opposition to the feminism of “should.” More than a third of them broke with tradition and voted to reject the committee’s recommendation (28 percent opposing and 9 percent abstaining).

The majority opinion must of course be accepted. We wish the university’s male president, male general director, and male rector success. Nonetheless, here’s a proposal. If it were us in the president or rector-elect’s position, we’d immediately declare that we won’t be seeking a second term. If we can’t have a female president now, nor a female rector, let’s at least have a female president and a female rector in a few years. Let’s see how all you male feminists handle that.

Prof. Mira Ariel, Prof. Rachel Giora, Dr. Orly Lubin and Prof. Hannah Naveh are among the founders of the Women’s Forum of Tel Aviv University.

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