With Giant Step Backward Expected in Election, It’s a Gloomy International Women’s Day in Israel

Fewer women will be in the next Knesset, while business report shows Israeli women languishing relative to OECD countries

Allison Kaplan Sommer
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Orli Levi-Abekasis, center, at the women’s gathering for her Gesher party at the Barby club in Tel Aviv, March 4, 2019. She has rebranded Gesher as a women's rights party.
Orli Levi-Abekasis, center, at the women’s gathering for her Gesher party at the Barby club in Tel Aviv, March 4, 2019. She has rebranded Gesher as a women's rights party.Credit: Meged Gozani
Allison Kaplan Sommer

There isn’t much to celebrate in Israel on this year's International Women’s Day, according to women’s rights advocates in the country.

Israeli women are facing a daunting uphill climb when it comes to translating public awareness into real political and economic power, they say.

This assessment comes despite the continued influence of the #MeToo movement on the public conversation and the historic rally and strike in Israel last December regarding violence against women.

The country is on the brink of taking a giant step backward after it goes to the polls on April 9, warns Michal Gera Margaliot, managing director of the Israel Women’s Network.

The regression follows years of steady progress, during which the number of women in the Israeli parliament passed the milestone threshold of 25 percent in 2015 — representing a fivefold increase over the preceding 25 years.

That figure put the Knesset’s rate of female representation ahead of the U.S. Congress and brought it close to the OECD average. Following departures in some of the parties, which allowed women further down on party slates to become lawmakers, there are a record 35 women, close to 30 percent, in the outgoing parliament.

After the election, even the most optimistic scenario poll results show that this number will drop to 30, if not lower — a “dramatic decrease,” Gera Margaliot says.

Michal Gera Margaliot, head of the Israel Women's Network. Expects a “dramatic decrease” in the number of female lawmakers in the next Knesset.
Michal Gera Margaliot, head of the Israel Women's Network. Expects a “dramatic decrease” in the number of female lawmakers in the next Knesset. Credit: Yifat Yaffe

Her organization came to this conclusion after the party slates were finalized in late February, and the organization crunched the numbers, examining the prospects of the dozen or so parties likely to make it into the Knesset.

A key reason for the depressing situation is the emergence and rise of the male-dominated Kahol Lavan alliance. The nucleus of that multiparty alliance, Benny Gantz’s centrist Hosen L’Yisrael, had a dearth of women to begin with. The decision to ally his party with Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid pushed several of those women down the list to places in which they are unlikely to enter the Knesset.

Women in Lapid’s party, which had been praised for its relatively positive gender balance, were also adversely affected by the alliance with Gantz. In the end, Kahol Lavan has no women in its top five spots and just two in its top 10. Even if it wins 35 seats, as some polls predict, only nine of them will be filled by women.

“What is upsetting isn’t just the composition of the Kahol Lavan slate itself, but the way it was built,” says Gera Margaliot. “Basically, a group of men sat down and made all of the decisions about it, and then invited some women to join them. It wasn’t surprising to see the results of such a process.”

The new alliance was only the latest factor in a situation that is already challenging when it comes to female representation in Israel. The ultra-Orthodox parties totally exclude women, and female representation is sparse in the far-right Union of Right-Wing Parties as well as the parties representing Israeli-Arab voters.

According to Gera Margaliot, co-leader Yair Lapid was aware that the composition of Kahol Lavan had made a bad situation worse. She said he had assured them that if the party wins control of the government, it would appoint women to senior positions.

But, she noted, such reassurances did little to compensate for the disappointing numbers or for the departure of several strong female leaders, notably Tzipi Livni and former Meretz leader Zehava Galon, who withdrew from the political stage this year. (Galon was replaced by another woman, Tamar Zandberg.)

A last-minute twist is the decision by Orli Levi-Abekasis to rebrand her party, Gesher, a women’s rights party, in an effort to stay above the 3.25 percent electoral threshold and make it into the Knesset.

Tzipi Livni in Tel Aviv, Feb. 18, 2019. Her departure as well as that of other prominent women, have helped ensure there will be fewer women in the next Knesset than in the outgoing one.
Tzipi Livni in Tel Aviv, Feb. 18, 2019. Her departure as well as that of other prominent women, have helped ensure there will be fewer women in the next Knesset than in the outgoing one.Credit: Moti Milrod

The party’s chances of succeeding in that endeavor — if recent polling is accurate — are slim. But her new strategy of highlighting issues key to moving women forward in Israel will, at a minimum, spotlight the issues that groups like the IWN and its allies want all parties to promote and hope be included in any government coalition agreement: Reducing wage inequality with an equal pay law; placing women in key high-level government positions; intensifying the level of punishment for sex crimes, moving the plan ahead for the creation of a national authority to address sexual and gender violence; and legislation aimed at helping working parents through government-subsidized high-quality, supervised day care for children 3 months and older.

Different sector, similar story

There is also little good news in the private sector.

Israel had an unimpressive showing in the annual 2019 Women in Work Index, released Wednesday by Price Waterhouse Cooper, which compared working conditions for women in 33 OECD countries.

Israel stayed at 21 on the list — where it has remained since falling from 19th place in 2017. The ongoing study of women at work also found that Israel had the fifth highest gender wage gap of all 33 countries in the index.

The countries that topped the list with the best conditions for working women were Iceland, Sweden and New Zealand, with Nordic and Scandinavian countries dominating the top of the list. Israel came in as being slightly better for women’s economic empowerment than France and the United States, which were ranked 22nd and 23rd. At the bottom of the list were Greece, Mexico, and South Korea.

PWC found that, worldwide, women were dramatically underrepresented in corporate leadership, with women holding only one out of five board seats in the major publicly traded companies in the OECD.

Idit Cohen, head of executive compensation at BDO Consulting Group.
Idit Cohen, head of executive compensation at BDO Consulting Group.

The dearth of women at the top of the corporate ladder holds true in Israel as well. A study released for International Women’s Day by Idit Cohen, head of executive compensation at BDO Consulting Group, found that just 12 percent of the highest-ranked positions at companies traded on its stock exchange were filled by women.

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