The Long Journey to Gender Equality in Israel

Yifat Zamir has spent the past five years as CEO of an organization promoting gender equality, but admits she’s fighting for future generations.

Yifat Zamir had modest goals for the women of her own generation: To manage as best they could while helping to guide business and other institutions into a more egalitarian environment. “I’m working hard so my daughters and their husbands will have it easier in the future,” the CEO of WePower, an Israeli organization promoting women’s leadership and gender integration, tells TheMarker in an interview.

Zamir joined WePower after a career in television news witnessed too many disappointments, including the time six years ago when a plan to make a program on women’s uphill struggle to run for local office was turned down by an editor. As it turns out, the number of women running for local office has jumped 400% in the years since and the number elected has grown 30%. After five years as CEO, Zamir, 45, is stepping down but will remain as chairwoman.

Today the governor of the Bank of Israel, the director general of the Finance Ministry and the CEOs of three of Israel’s five biggest banks are women. Are Israeli women doing better than in the past?

“In terms of consciousness, it’s better. On a day-to-day level for each working woman? No. But consciousness alters reality. They’ll change the reality within their own organizations and serve as an example in others. Women need to reach positions of power for all of us, for the sake of family balance, narrowing the wage gaps, and for a more just and equal society.”

What’s your opinion on the mommy-track phenomenon?

“I see it as an unhappy phenomenon – heartrending. An Israeli household needs two incomes and women need recognition, so it occurs less than in the United States. I have friends who studied at the world’s best universities and they are now sitting at home.”

What would you say to these women?

“We always need to look at the next generation. If that’s what makes you a role model for your children, then continue along that path.”

‘We talk a lot but don’t let go’

When she was 30, Zamir realized that, even in her own marriage, she suffered from gender inequality. “We both studied and worked. Suddenly our first child was born, and I understood my limit was 4 P.M. The company where my husband worked didn’t permit equally shared parenting, and so all at once I realized I was following the exact same pattern that women had been following long before me: My career is less important.

“The division [of responsibilities] at home is much fairer now, but I’ll admit that I, too, find myself in the traditional niche. The person managing the household and help is clearly [the woman], and no woman will tell you any different. You might not stay home, but you continue managing it.”

That’s a harsh statement, particularly from a CEO and career woman.

“Today I say the change needs to begin with us, and it starts with the understanding that you can’t preach equality without starting in your own home. Many men ask my husband, ‘How can you live with her, a militant feminist?’ I say this isn’t the old-style feminism, but fair division. I recently attended an event and received a text message: ‘I prepared dinner, the children ate, everyone’s in bed and I’m going to take a shower.’ I read it out to everyone, saying: ‘It’s 8:30 P.M., here’s the future – let go.’”

So women don’t receive help from their husbands because they’re not liberated?

“Absolutely. Friends tell me that when their child was with the husband, they ate a sandwich with chocolate spread – what’s going on? Women have to manage both their children and their husbands, and don’t rely on their husbands. But as soon as they rely on their husbands, the men start taking responsibility. Maybe he won’t do it her way, maybe there’ll be a mess that she’s not used to. So they turned the kitchen upside down – so what? We talk a lot but don’t let go. New feminism means letting someone else do your job. Only then does it happen.”

You can let go as much as you want, but if the timetable at work isn’t in your favor, what can you do?

“It’s legitimate to take a step backward for the first years after the children are born. The question is when to go forward again, and where to. If you work at a law firm with 30 partners and half of them are women, the timetable will work in your favor – and if your husband works there, it will work in his favor, too.

“All the studies prove that anywhere where 30% of the staff is women, the organizational culture is different. There aren’t any regular meetings scheduled after 4 P.M., people go home at 3:30 P.M. twice a week. All aspects of life, not just work, are taken into consideration. A woman – and a man too – has to want to work in an organization that strives for equality, for no other reason than it’s better for everyone, including organizational performance. It’s clear that the more women there are occupying positions of power, the more such organizations will exist.”

Is it really so easy? Anne-Marie Slaughter, the Princeton professor who wrote a controversial article in July 2012 in The Atlantic magazine about “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” said it’s impossible to do it all.

“I should mention that Slaughter returned just two months ago to a senior role in the U.S. administration [she’s the CEO of New America Foundation, a Washington think tank]. It is really tough, very tough. Trying to be a mother and an executive isn’t easy. But when there are more women in top positions and the entire organizational culture changes, there will be a saner balance. We are a transitional generation. I’m working hard so my daughters and their husbands will have it easier in the future.”

Equality is an important concept in Zamir’s approach, as opposed to reverse discrimination. “When you visit a university today, you’ll find posters hanging on every wall on sexual harassment. I would actually prefer to see the Declaration of Independence in their place. It bothers me that the treatment of women is through the prism of sexual harassment, weakness, victimization and need. Traditional women’s organizations often work to keep the victim in place.”

You are also part of a women’s organization.

“I work for a women’s organization operating in the civic arena. The entire civic society is the relevant society, and we’re working within it to encourage women to take their proper places – in the Knesset or local authorities, for example – and not leaving the arena to men alone but to fit in as an integral part. There is also female responsibility in this field, which requires study and action. We’re not out to preach to the choir.”

The language of the future

You oppose the idea of “promoting the status of women.”

“Right. It’s an anachronistic concept that should be changed to ‘promoting gender equality.’”

Why?

“Because it’s a concept that perpetuates the status of women. It says: ‘You are lagging behind.’”

But we are lagging behind!

“True, but in order to change this, the semantics need to be changed. Language creates reality, and we need to start speaking the language of the future, not the past. The future is equal representation, and the only way to do this is by being where the laws are written. The laws until now were written by men, but when there are 60 female Knesset members, the reality will change. Today, 24% of Knesset members are women, and we’re witnessing an incredible wave of social-justice legislation. This doesn’t come from nowhere. There are clearly better and worse female Knesset members, and there are many women who annoy us like men do, but the voice is heard. It might be annoying listening to MK Haneen Zoabi [Balad], but she serves as a role model for Arab women. She redefined the possibility of the Arab woman reaching influential positions. The Jewish female Knesset members obviously serve as important role models among teenage girls.”

That’s all fine and dandy, but the last municipal elections were a failure in terms of the number of women elected.

“The elections were an outstanding success. There were 42 female candidates, more than there ever were.

They weren’t elected.

“True, but now they’re in the system and serve not only as council members but also as chairwomen of the opposition or coalition, and in five years we’ll see them again. Keep in mind that most of the 42 were unknowns in their cities before the elections, as opposed to most of the men who got elected. Next time, they’ll be better known. I think that in five years, no faction will even consider not having women [on their slates], and this will result in better quality local government, where it’s the talent that counts rather than the connections.”

Eyal Toueg