Number of Female CEOs at Top Israeli Firms: One

With departure of Leumi, Discount Bank bosses, only one TA-125 company will be led by a woman

Smadar Barber-Tsadik, CEO of the First International Bank of Israel.
Moti Milrod

Only three years ago, Israel could boast of having more women CEOs leading its publicly traded companies than Europe or the United States. But since then, the situation has grown worse – and it will grow worse still later this year when the number will be whittled down to just one.

Figures from S&P Maalot, the Israeli credit rating agency and affiliate of Standard & Poor’s, found that in 2016, women occupied 6% of the CEO jobs in companies belonging to the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange’s TA-100 index of the 100 biggest corporations by market capitalization.

That was a tiny percentage, but it put Israel ahead of Europe where only 4%, just 15 women, of the companies in the S&P Euro 350 index were women and the United States where only 5.4% of companies in the S&P 500 had female CEOs.

Jump ahead three years later, and in Europe female representation has edged up to 4.3% among the 350 European companies. In the U.S. the figure dropped to 4.8%, just 24 executives, and in Israel (where the benchmark index used by the TASE has been expanded to 125 companies in the TA-125) it dropped to 2.5%.

But there’s still six months left to 2019 and by the time the year is over, the percentage will have dropped to just 0.8%, barring any unexpected developments.

The reason is that two of the three CEOs who now account for that 2.5% are on their way out.

Rakefet Russak-Aminoach, who led Bank Leumi, Israel’s biggest lender by market cap, said at the end of last month she would step down by the end the year after seven years on the job. In June Lilach Asher-Topilsky, CEO at Israel Discount Bank, the fourth largest lender, announced she would be leaving to join the FIMI private equity fund.

That leaves just one female CEO holding the fort − Smadar Barber-Tsadik of No. 5-ranked First International Bank of Israel, alongside 124 males CEOs heading TA-125 companies.

“The results of the S&P study show that the glass ceiling has been scratched a little, but it hasn’t been broken,” said S & P Maalot CEO Ronit Harel Ben-Zeev. “Even though there are more women in executive positions, the top of the managerial pyramid remains almost exclusively male. Israel lags far behind in a not very competitive race.”

The research was done as part of S&P Global’s #ChangePays campaign that aims to encourage the corporate world to give more attention to diversity in the workforce.

In Israel, banking is the industry that has seen the most female CEOs. In the U.S., however, female representation has been more diverse, with the highest concentrations in infrastructure, finance, information technology and consumer goods in 2019. Three years earlier, female CEOs in the S&P 500 were mostly in the IT sector.

Among women CEOs in the S&P 500 in 2019 are Safra Catz, the Israeli-born co-CEO of the high-tech company Oracle; Ginni Rometty, who heads IBM; and Mary T. Barra of General Motors.

In Europe, there is also more diversity in industry for women CEOs, with high levels of representation in consumer products and finance.

Among the most notable women leading European companies, Emma Walmsley is CEO of drug maker GlaxoSmithKline; Allison Brittain of the U.K. hotel and restaurant company Whitbread; and Ilham Kadri of the Belgian materials and chemicals maker Solvay

Despite the paucity of women at the top, studies have mostly shown that women make better managers than men.

One, led by Professor Oyvind Martinsen, head of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at the BI Norwegian Business School, assessed the personality and characteristics of nearly 3,000 managers and found that women outperformed men in initiative and clear communication; openness and ability to innovate; sociability and supportiveness; and methodical management and goal-setting.

Men did better at dealing with work-related stress and they had higher levels of emotional stability.

Harel Ben-Zeev said she didn’t believe the absence of women in the corner office is entirely due to sexism. “I can’t believe that there are boards that don’t choose women for the position just because they are women,” she said. “The problem is that from the outset, few women apply for these positions.”

Nevertheless, she said, it was up to companies to recognize the problem and deal with it “holistically,” among other ways, by promoting women to senior executive positions.