Slowly, Israeli Employers Are Learning to Treat Dads With Respect

Public sector leads in offering fathers reduced work hours, but attitudes towards fatherhood lag.

Several months ago Uri (not his real name), a married father of three, asked the personnel department of the government agency where he works about switching to a "maternal shift," which enables female employees with young children to work between half an hour to one hour less each day than usual, with no cut in pay.

Uri was promptly turned down on the grounds that his wife did not work full-time. Female employees who qualify aren’t asked about their husbands’ work hours; they are entitled to the benefit automatically. "Such discrimination is infuriating and unjustified," complains Uri. "Why should my rights as an active father of three small children be any different than those for mothers?"

Two months ago, however, the penny dropped in the civil service. The traditional "maternal shift" gave way to the "parental shift," designed for women and men alike, who need to meet the exact same criteria.

"The maternal shift entrenches the status of the woman as responsible for taking care of the children," wrote Civil Service Commissioner Moshe Dayan in a letter to employees announcing the change. "This is the main barrier blocking the ability of women to advance into senior positions."

What is a gain for male civil servants is a setback for women who, like Uri, can now be disqualified if their spouse doesn’t hold down a full-time job. On the other hand, other provisions of the amended regulation can work in their favor: Women who choose not to shorten their workday receive bonus pay, while men who opt out of the “parental shift” do not.

"Six years ago the Education Ministry agreed to let me work a maternal shift, but a year later asked me to return the money paid for hours not worked because basically there is no maternal shift for men," says kindergarten teacher Jose Caramelos, 42, who works at a preschool in Rehovot and serves as the primary caregiver for his two young children. The word that male teachers are also entitled to a parental shift was late in reaching the Education Ministry: The privilege has been offered to members of the teachers union since 2010, but they still need to prove their eligibility and it isn't granted automatically.

"The regulations were recently changed and I became eligible for a maternal shift," Caramelos says, adding, "But it wasn't easy: I had to go through a complicated bureaucratic process."

Unmarried with children

Another case of paternal discrimination took place at a central-region hospital run by Clalit Health Services when Danny (not his real name), a physician with young children, asked for a parental shift and was told the hospital would first need to examine the matter. It seems Danny and his partner aren’t married, although the collective bargaining agreement for physicians doesn’t say marriage is a condition for receiving the benefit. An unmarried female doctor is automatically eligible for a maternal shift.

"The initial response I received was 'you are listed as single on your identity card and the matter requires examination,'" says Danny. "I was assisted by Gali Etzion, legal counsel for [the women's organization] Na'amat, who wrote letters upon letters to the hospital, all of which went ignored. The Employment (Equal Opportunities) Law clearly states that the rights accorded to women for parenthood must extend to men as well if the woman doesn't make use of her own parental rights."

Danny says he was finally given parental status two months later, after turning to the Israel Medical Association. "I don't understand why a mother doesn't need to prove anything while I, as a father whose children are listed at the same address as mine, need to beg for a parental shift," he says. "And all this at a time when the legal status of common-law spouses is identical to that of married people."

Clalit responded that after the hospital looked into the matter the employee was given the right to a parental shift in accordance with his contractual rights. Etzion explains that many regulations at public institutions haven't yet been adjusted for the changes that the labor market has undergone in recent years. "The regulations are still based on the assumption that only women are interested in a parental shift and therefore the burden of proof is on the men," she says.

While the public sector is taking tentative steps to accommodate parents, in the private sector such arrangements are a scarce commodity, found, if at all, among employers bound to collective labor agreements, like Bezeq. A number of other companies such as Intel offer flexible hours, or even one day a week working from home to make things easier for parents, mothers and fathers alike. Beyond this, the private sector doesn't tend to give parents much consideration and the main victims are the men. The Employment of Women Law allows mothers of babies up to a year old to take one hour each day, presumably for breast-feeding, which obviously doesn't apply to men.

ATM father

"My workday begins at 6:30 A.M.," says Moshe (not his real name), a construction project manager. "I asked my boss about coming in a bit later, around 7:45 A.M., so I can bring my son to preschool. He told me that would be too late. So I asked to leave earlier, around 4 P.M., to pick him up from preschool, but was refused again. I want to be an involved parent, but they don't let me. When I stay at home with my son when he's sick they call me from work and ask, 'Can't your wife stay?' or 'There's no grandmother?' It tears me apart. “

Referring to men who see their role in the family as providing income first and foremost, Moshe says: “I don’t want to be an ATM father."

Moshe relates that he recently interviewed for a position with a high-tech company and made it through the selection process until the final stretch, when he asked about the maternal shift starting at 8 A.M. and ending at 3 P.M.. "I was told by the friend who referred me to the job opening that I was rejected only because of this request," recalls Moshe. "When a man asks to work less he gets stared at. You're seen as being lazy, and that's not fair at all."

The fathers who suffer the most discrimination and lack any legal protection are those who have brought children into the world outside of a relationship with the mother. The National Insurance Institute acknowledges the parental rights of same-sex couples if they are recognized as common-law partners.

"Families take many different forms nowadays," says Etzion. "Many couples bring children into the world outside of a relationship, too. The first to be subjected to injustice is the father. The law simply doesn't acknowledge him."

The salvation for fathers may well come from the direction of several Knesset members, who are preparing to introduce some legislation on the subject. One of these is by MK Eitan Cabel (Labor) and his parliamentary assistant Daniel Harush that would permit family breadwinners to leave work once a week one hour earlier than usual.

"Men avoid talking about the parental frustrations," says Harush, a father of two. "They are afraid they'll be seen as crybabies, spoiled or lazy. A distorted situation has been created where most of the burden of making a living falls on the father because of the intensity nowadays in the job market, and he pays the price by being distanced from his family. A generation of 'weekend fathers' has arisen here, but it's really impossible to bring up children on weekends. When my first daughter was born I saw myself as an involved father but the job market had other plans for me – and the frustration is enormous."

David Bachar