Study: Gender Equality in Israel Going Backwards

The World Economic Forum index puts Israel at 56 among 135 countries, a big drop over six years.

Hila Weissberg
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Hila Weissberg

While most other countries in the world have made significant strides promoting gender equality in recent years, Israel has been sliding backward.

In the World Economic Forum's latest annual global gender gap index, published last month, Israel dropped to 56th place out of 135 countries, a decline of 21 places since 2006. It has made some progress in absolute measures, but other countries have done much more.

With the smallest overall gender gap, Iceland tops the index, which ranks countries according to their level of gender equality. Factors including health, education, and economic and political criteria were taken into consideration.

Iceland is followed closely by other Scandinavian and Northern European countries.

New Zealand ranks seventh in gender equality. The Philippines and Nicaragua are ranked eighth and ninth, respectively, with Nicaragua registering a leading 17% in narrowing the gender gap since 2006. In the Philippines there are actually more women than men in managerial positions, and Nicaragua's parliament is 40% female.

Other major English-speaking countries - South Africa, Britain, Canada, the United States and Australia - are all ranked between 16th and 25th.

Between Singapore and France

Israel, which has narrowed its equality gap by just 1.5% over the past six years, is flanked by Singapore in 55th place and France in 57th, and ahead of countries like Russia (59), China (69), Italy (80) and Japan (101).

Among the 45 countries with the highest income, Israel ranks a somewhat shabby 27th. But if it's any consolation, Israel ranks first by a wide margin in the Middle East and North Africa region.

The main parameters applied to Western countries, including Israel, are political empowerment and economic participation and opportunity. Access to health and education is less a concern than in the past; any remaining gaps in these two fields have narrowed considerably over the past decades.

Ronit Kark, an expert on gender studies and leadership at Bar-Ilan University, explains that the right to health and education is perceived as more basic than the right to wealth and influence.

"People holding capital and power aren't threatened by women gaining access to good health services, but Knesset representation is another matter," she says. "Dominant macho circles wielding economic and political power aren't always interested in sharing these resources with groups of women. They aren't necessarily interested in a more equitable labor market."

The yawning wage gap is a testament to the pervasive notion that "feminine" jobs have less value, according to Kark. "Groups with less power receive less for their employment, not to mention the obvious fact that housework doesn't get priced," she notes.

The World Economic Forum, which brings together political and business leaders for gatherings such as the Davos Conference, ranks Israel quite high when it comes to the numbers of women participating in the labor force, as well as the ratio of women to men in professional and technical jobs.

But Israel does poorly in the three other measures of economic equality: equal pay for equal work; estimated income; and the ratio of female legislators, senior officials and managers.

Underrepresented in Knsesst

For example, although two major political parties are currently headed by women, over the past four years women have held just a fifth of the seats in the Knesset - something to keep in mind with elections coming up.

"Israel continues to hold the top spot in the Middle East and North Africa region, supported by a higher-than-average performance on the economic participation and opportunity and political empowerment sub-indexes," according to the report. "Israel slips one [notch in the rankings] despite a slight increase in score due to the relative gains made by other countries in the rankings."

The solution to Israel's gender gap seems simple: pushing for affirmative action policies and legislating fair representation for women in public and private roles. There is now a law, for example, requiring the presence of at least one woman on the board of directors of any public company. No such law applies to private companies.

Attorney Ina Soltanovich-David, the Industry, Trade and Employment Ministry's equal opportunity employment commissioner, says the problems regarding women in the workplace are universal, particularly the issue of balancing work and home life. But while Nordic countries encourage joint parenthood, for example, Israel rewards long hours at the office. Wage differentials are accordingly greater - about 34%.

"Europeans tend to bring fewer children into the world than we do, so the difficulty here in finding a balance is even more extreme," she says. "Legislation against wage discrimination does exist, but wages among colleagues aren't transparent and lower pay is often a result of women accumulating less overtime. We also know that women have less of a tendency to haggle over their pay."

Lagging progress

The most disturbing finding in the report, according to Soltanovich-David, is how little has advanced in closing the gender gap, compared to other countries.

"It hasn't progressed at the rate of other countries, indicating a need to formulate effective policies that promote equality between women and men, and narrow the gaps wherever barriers occur," she says.

"The rate of participation by women in the labor market is quite high, but this isn't enough. The next stage is to understand why there aren't enough women in senior positions, and why they don't receive equal pay with men in the same job. The existing gaps harm Israel's ability to develop economically and socially."

Women protesting sexual harrassment in 2011.Credit: Michal Fattal
More equals than others: The gender equality gap as rated by the World Economic Forum. Source: World Economic Forum

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