Analysis

Israel's Male-directed Shutdown Leaves Women Home

'Some 4 million workers in Israel are women, and like men they’re being expected to return to work, except women are paying a higher price on both ends' says one expert

Tali Heruti-Sover.
Tali Heruti-Sover
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A woman wearing a mask walks in Tel Aviv, April 8, 2020.
A woman wearing a mask walks in Tel Aviv, April 8, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod
Tali Heruti-Sover.
Tali Heruti-Sover

H. is employed but hasn’t been able to go back to work, even though she was given the opportunity. She won’t be going back until the education system reopens fully – as a mother of three she’ll be staying home at the expense of her vacation days.

Given the choice of her or her husband working, her husband went back, simply because his salary is higher. H. knows that her employer is being patient, but as time passes, she doesn’t know if that will remain the case.

A. has another problem – a male employee whom she trained was called back to work because he’s his family’s main breadwinner, but she hasn’t been called back. And then there’s N., who returned from unpaid leave, while her husband, an essential worker, is still working full-time.

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N. won’t be able to go back to work until day care centers reopen and her daughter, who is under 3, has somewhere to go. “I tried to bring my daughter to work, but it didn’t work out,” she says, adding that her boss has a short fuse.

She says that for the moment he understands he has no choice, because everyone is in the same situation. But she doesn’t know when he’ll demand that she come back full-time.

According to Hanna Beit Halachmi, an expert on gender and a management consultant, “Some 4 million workers in Israel are women, and like men they’re being expected to return to work, except women are paying a higher price on both ends. The first is personal: They earn less on average, and thus given the choice between them and their husbands, they’re likely to be left at home with the children.

“This decision doesn’t just return them to their traditional roles and hurt them financially [people on unpaid leave receive only 70% of their salaries as unemployment pay], it also harms their future potential to advance. People will say, ‘Here’s more proof that women put their children first – so we should promote men instead.’

“Worse, the statistics show that employers preferred to put women on unpaid leave – 60% of all people on unpaid leave are women – and they’ll probably call back the men first because they’re considered the family breadwinners. The employers know that as long as the children are home, the mom will be home.”

The women are being hurt by the establishment, which is supposed to be helping women return to the workforce, but the forces in the establishment that are supposed to be aiding them are weak themselves. “There’s a frustrating cycle here: Only those with financial power can apply pressure to make financial gains,” Beit Halachmi says.

“The education system is in female hands and thus is weak. You can’t compare Harel Vizel, the CEO of [clothing chain] Fox, to the chairwoman of [the state-subsidized day care chain at] WIZO. So women will be going back to work last, and that’s the cycle – women earn less and therefore will stay home longer.”

The executive director of the Israel Women’s Network, Michal Gera Margaliot, says it’s easy to blame the women’s organizations or teachers’ union chief Yaffa Ben David, but the real blame for creating the unequal workforce lies with the decision-makers, all of whom are men.

“We can’t ask people to go to work without infrastructure like education. The civil service is 65% women. Many offices insist they be physically present at work. How are they supposed to do that? The fact that the education system, which was the first to shut down, will also be the last to reopen stems from a mistaken, male worldview,” she says.

“The traditional workforce structure still hasn’t been fixed, so we’re used to the harm that it inflicts on women: Men have careers and women have work; men are the main breadwinners and the secondary caregivers. And of course the woman’s salary is often the ‘second salary.’ If men were paying a price, the education system would have been the first to return to full operation.”

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