For as long as she can remember, Roni Floman wanted to be a man, or at least like a man. She always wanted to write, but mainly she had a “strong feminist impulse,” that is, a clear inner understanding that she would never be supported by, dependent on, a husband.
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Her impressive academic record and vocational career reflect that recognition: Immediately after completing her army service she began studying law and business, and by 25 she was a licensed lawyer.
A few years later, after being nurtured as a rising star in a law firm, she earned an MBA at INSEAD in France, one of the world’s leading business schools. There were around 30 women in her class of 120; “it took time to find one another,” she says.
The desire to be like a man is also reflected in “Hasfan” (Hebrew for male stripper), the novella for which Floman’s latest book is named (in Hebrew, Olam Hadash). All three novellas revolve around issues of work and career, interpersonal dynamics in the office.
The first, “Oznayim” (ears in Hebrew), relates the story of Yossi Harel, an Israeli who immigrated to California, and whose Silicon Valley company is about to fall apart.
The second, “Kafriya” (country girl) depicts relationships between Israelis and female labor migrants through the story of an old woman, her Filipina caretaker and her Israeli partner.
“Hasfan,” the third novella, describes reality from a relatively rare point of view: Shiri, a young lawyer in a male-dominated firm, grapples with the conflict between her strong desire to succeed and traditional gender roles, between gratitude toward her sponsors and anger at her total dependence on men to open the door for her. In between are friends who marry and have children, and there is a bachelorette party with a male stripper — a symbol of the internalization of the codes of male-female relationships — and what he triggers in the group of successful women that invited him.
“Everything that makes women desirable is related to questions of submission and ‘going with the flow,’ and in the job market that’s problematic. It’s an unsolved conflict,” Floman says when asked about the tendency to assume that women who are successful professionally have used sex to get ahead.
But with men the question doesn’t even come up.
“Of course not, nor does he ask himself whether he looks sexy to his boss,” Floman says with a smile. “I think women internalize that gaze and reflect it on themselves. Maybe that’s why when Shiri sees the stripper she is shocked. She doesn’t experience at that moment what she imagines a man would experience at the sight of a female stripper — rather, she identifies herself in the stripper, as a kind of sexual representation of women and their situation.”
“Hasfan” is Floman’s first work of fiction, after two books of nonfiction. She is 45, a married mother of three who lives with her family on a moshav in the Sharon region, where she is a member of the local council. She was born in Jerusalem — both parents are professors of medicine — and as a child also lived in Herzliya, Givatayim, Tel Aviv and the United States. She spent her army service administered aptitude tests.
An inappropriate question during a job interview was a kind of wake-up call for Floman.
It was for a position with a venture capital fund, and she was still a graduate student. The interviewer, she says, asked her rudely when she was going to have children.
Fatigue at 34
“Suddenly, I thought that I didn’t want to work in Israel, to be considered smart because I’m a hard worker. Suddenly I looked back in anger. The work world had treated me well, I was young, I always wore snug clothing and I was very ambitious. But I wasn’t willing to be asked that question. I thought that in America things would be better, and that was true. In America I got a promotion the day before I gave birth to my eldest son.”
Floman and her husband moved to California, where she was hired by a startup that belonged to Erel Margalit, now a Knesset member for Zionist Union. She began working in marketing, about which she knew nothing, she says, and was successful. She later worked at a different startup, but at the age of 34 she says she felt tired and hopeless.
“Apparently I was having a midlife crisis,” she says, again with a smile.
“I wanted an ‘exit’ so I could sit at home and be an author. A friend told me that when her father retired and he finally had time to write the book he’d always fantasized about, he sat and sat and nothing came.
“One day I was arguing with the CEO about something and even before he answered I decided to go. It was stupid. I didn’t write, I had young children, we lived in California and I didn’t even have a Hebrew computer keyboard, and I tossed a serious career into the trash.”
But Floman’s gamble paid off. Since returning to Israel with her family, in 2006, she has done marketing consulting for tech firms and published two books: “Arai’im Ve’kvuim” (“Permanent and Temporary”), about Israelis in Silicon Valley, and “Good Intentions: Arab High Tech in Israel.”
“I didn’t sit down and say I would write about work, but the work world is where much of our drama takes place,” she says.
“If life is envy and status, power and money, a lot of that drama takes place at work. Many of life’s surprises take place there, and you’re also exposed to people you wouldn’t otherwise meet, and encounter human situations you wouldn’t encounter.
“That’s certainly true when you’re a young lawyer exposed to the bedrooms of the commercial firms you represent, when you’re a young person who represents the interests of some firm you see many things. “
The wrestling arena
“Shiri sees all these people in the wrestling arena. The world today is defined by status and money, and that’s where it takes place, and that’s interesting.”
And what’s especially interesting is the not-entirely-clear status of women in these power clubs.
“It’s complicated to be a woman in a competitive workplace. As a privileged woman I’m not supposed to say that; I’m the only councilwoman, for example.”
Even more so in big companies.
“When I stopped working at the age of 34 — an irresponsible act — an older woman I had interviewed for my first book told me it wasn’t a midlife crisis, as I thought, but rather, ‘You’re tired of being the only woman in the room.’ Maybe she was right.”
Why is that such a complicated place?
In business, real business, there’s a question of charisma and power and testosterone. Women have less testosterone-based power. I don’t want young women to read and to decide that they don’t want it, but you have to ask yourself how you’ll be a mother or a wife. At the same time, you ask the terrible questions that I’m sorry I asked myself: Do I look feminine? Am I too tough? Am I too angry and bitchy? You internalize stereotypes about femininity. They were very good to me, they didn’t do anything to me or take anything from me. And there are women who are less conflicted about it. I regret that I’m not good like them.”
In “Hasfan,” a series of seemingly small, everyday situations are described from Shiri’s perspective: What’s the proper response to a snarky remark? Should she be one of the guys, to “go with the flow,” or show her resentment? How is it that surrounding all the high-ranking, successful women are rumors that they slept their way to the top with the CEO or the chairman? And why are they always described as being so mean and nasty?
Floman, who describes these situations vividly, admits that she experienced them herself and apparently is still torn between the very positive treatment that she received and her ability to examine these problematic situations with a critical eye.