Banker Breaks Glass Ceiling, but Should Feminists Be So Proud?

Should feminists be celebrating when Karnit Flug is expected to promote a neo-liberal agenda that many of them abhor?

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The feminist blogosphere is ecstatic. Radio talk shows are buzzing and TV news shows are flashing with interviews.

After definitively and gruffly ruling her out at least three times, and after delaying the decision for 112 days, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yapir Lapid finally appointed Dr. Karnit Flug as the next Governor of the Bank of Israel.

"This is sweetest, most just, and most exciting collective women's victory we've had lately," wrote Telma Biro on Onlife, a popular women's website.

Beaming broadly, Ofra Strauss, Chairwoman of the Management Board of Strauss Group, Israel's second-largest food producer, told a smiling TV anchorwoman that the appointment "is another opportunity to discuss the significance of the fact that more and more women are taking their places positions in economic leadership."

More than a few noted with satisfaction that "women are now heading Israel's entire banking system," referring in their assesment the heads of three of Israel's largest banks, the director-general of the Finance Ministry and several others holding key positions.

And many did not fail to comment on how, at least on one front, Israel is now on par with the U.S.: Flug will be the first female Bank of Israel governor - just like recently appointed Janet Yellen, who will be the first woman to head the American Federal Reserve.

Yet it's unclear why women are so pleased. After all, a few exceptional women leaders aside, Israeli women's status both within and outside of the financial world leaves little to cheer about. Only some 20 percent of the positions in companies traded on the benchmark Tel Aviv 100 index are occupied by women.

Only one third of managerial positions in any field are held by women. And the average wage gap between men and women is a whopping 25 percent at the lowest.

The sordid process of Flug's selection – which even Lapid referred to as "appalling" - added little to women's status or stature. And few women are applauding Flug's ideology and positions. It is widely believed that Flug will follow in the path of her mentor and predecessor, Stanley Fischer, by continuing to promote the neo-liberal agenda that most feminists abhor.

Flug is being applauded for other feminist reasons. "Any woman who manages to reach a position of authority in Israel is a woman who makes another crack in the glass ceiling for all of us," says Prof. Hanna Herzog, head of the Women and Gender Studies Program in Tel Aviv University and co-director of the Van Leer Institute's Women in the Public Sphere program.

The way Flug made that crack, adds feminist campaigner Dorit Abramovitch, has gained her sympathy and admiration. By including nearly a dozen men (one from as far off as Argentina) but not a single woman in his list of potential candidates for the post, Netanyahu, she says, made it clear he wanted a world-class star for this position, and that he didn't think Flug – or any other woman – could fill that role.

To add to that, the nomination process quickly unfolded into a contest between Netanyahu and Lapid, with the candidates serving as pawns played between the men.

But through it all, says Abramovich, Flug continued to perform her job as interim governor with dignity and grace, even representing Israel last week at meetings of the World Monetary Fund. "She presented an alternative model of behavior to the men's ego-filled arm-wrestling personality politics that is so common in Israel. [...] She refused to play their game. She refused to turn this into a personal ego trip. A man would have been insulted and quit in a huff. Flug was an example of dignity and professionalism for all of us, men and women alike, and that is a feminist victory, too."

In fact, Flug is being applauded despite her assumed positions because, in Israel today, every victory for a woman could be a victory for women. "We are still in a position where it is important to see women in positions of power and authority. They serve as role models and help to break stereotypes. Of course I would prefer to see a woman who holds feminist positions and doesn't hold to a neo-liberal ideology. But in the choice between a man and a woman with the same ideology, I'll choose the woman," says Herzog.

One day, when true equality exists, and gender no longer matters, we'll be free to choose candidates solely according to character and competence. But until that day, that extra X chromosome still matters.

Karnit Flug: Finally the leaders saw the light. Credit: Emil Salman

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