What Israeli Women Want

Bucking societal and religious shibboleths, this generation is pushing for shared parenting to strike a balance between the mommy track and the superwoman model.

At one time, “Ronit” (not her real name) was a mid-level administrator at a large insurance company in the center of Israel. At the age of 35, with three children, she wanted out. “I'm going home,” she told her amazed bosses, who were positive she was heading straight for the top. Some of them believed she was actually going over to their biggest rival, but Ronit meant every word. She really wanted out.

“I’ve had enough,” she told herself and anyone who was willing to listen. “I’ve had enough of guilt feelings, of the hectic rush from the school gates to the office, the complex arrangements so that someone would pick the youngest from the kindergarten, and take the girl to her afternoon activity. I don’t want to live that way, always out of breath, feeling like a hamster on a wheel in a cage.”

Ronit is not alone. In her book “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back,” Prof. Dahlia Moore, dean of the School of Behavioral Sciences at the College of Management in Rishon Letzion, dedicated a chapter to a new Israeli phenomenon, the mommy track, looking at the cases of women who were on a promising career track and opted for motherhood.

They belong to a specific group: between 30 and 40 years old, educated, with a promising career as well as a family and kids – and with an equally educated spouse who could support the family alone, if needed. “These aren’t single mothers from the periphery who need every agora to feed the kids,” Moore clarifies.

“These are women who have a choice, who can allow themselves to go home after checking off the box marked ‘career’ – they can depend on someone else to bring in a salary.”

Naturally, there is a huge difference between the classic housewife of the past and those who chose the mommy track. “These aren’t women who see the home as the center of their lives,” Moore says. “They won’t be shlepping to the market every day or repeatedly mopping the floor, while making sure their husband’s dinner will be warm when he arrives. These are intelligent women who consciously choose to dedicate themselves to motherhood. They can spend their free time working out, or going out for coffee with friends, thinking of activities for the children. The cleaning lady will continue to do the cleaning.”

No strings attached?

It sounds like heaven: no financial problems, wonderful motherhood, no pressure since you’ve already “made it,” and if you should choose to rejoin the race, it’s as simple as ABC.

Well, not quite.

The women who chose the mommy track, all from the middle to high socioeconomic strata, ignored one important factor: The job market waits for no one. After a year, or two, or five, when that woman feels the need to return to the office, she might find herself irrelevant. The longer she spends out of the race, the harder it is to return.

“I meet many women in that situation,” Moore says. “They’re already 40 or older, they took their time out to be at home with the children, but when they want to reclaim their job they discover that not only is it taken, but even if it were vacant, they no longer have the skills required. The job market is so rapid, innovative and competitive that you have no choice but to be on your toes all the time in order to adapt. The moment you leave, you’re creating a problem.”

Ronit’s move represents a backlash to the historic trend in Israel.

Moving forward, but only to a certain point
In the 1950s, women comprised only 25 percent of the Israeli workforce. As of the 1980s, they began claiming jobs that were formerly held by men, after studying engineering, medicine, law, architecture, economics or accounting. By 1998 women occupied 45 percent of the workforce, and in recent years this has risen to 48 percent.

Some areas that were formerly considered out of bounds were taken over: The State Prosecutors Office, for example, is almost completely run by women, which also affects the number of female judges. There are practically as many female as male physicians. There is still a female majority in the traditional female roles in schools and kindergartens (85 percent), while there is a decrease in women working in agriculture, construction and industry. In construction, engineering and architecture, women constitute 27 percent of the workforce. At the universities, 13 percent of the tenured professors are women, while they constitute 42 percent of the non-tenured teaching staff.

As far as independent businesses, women still have some catching up to do. Only 30 percent of independent businesses are owned by women.

Ambitious women have made a difference in recent years, but still just one in three managers is a woman. Female executives constitute 5.1 percent of total women employed, still lower than men’s 8.7 percent.

A law requiring public companies to include at least 30 percent women on their board of directors has helped increase female representation on directorates from 7.4 percent in 1993 to 28 percent in 1997 and eventually 33.5 percent in 2006. Yet, the old boys’ network, which in Israel usually involves connections through the Israel Defense Forces, prevails in the private sector, where women make up just 15 percent of board members. Yifat Zamir, CEO of WePower, says these boards are the next glass ceiling assertive women still need to break through.

Superwoman – out, joint parenthood – in

The emergence of women in higher-profile positions has spurred a new discourse in recent years which can be termed post-post-feminist. Ziona Koenig-Yair, the commissioner for equal opportunity employment, a newly established office at the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry, was among the first to use the term “joint parenthood.”

In a relatively conservative society, where 60 percent of the population define themselves as non-secular, the role of a woman as child bearer is imprinted early and strong. Israeli women are educated in a way that pushes them to fulfill both motherhood and career demands in order to feel satisfied and complete. The small matter of how exactly that is done pushes many women to extremes.

The feminist discourse, both in Israel and in general, granted women the right to work but did not take into account the household chores, while men continued to function in their traditional role as providers.

Prof. Dahlia Moore is well aware of the issue. After completing her Ph.D. she wanted to work on her post-doctorate in the U.S., and was already accepted by a prestigious university. Her husband, actor Avram Moore, couldn’t take time off from his career and join her. Moore decided to take the children with her, her husband visited and helped at first, but she was the one who was forced to juggle her studies and her parenthood. “It wasn’t easy,” she admits, “but it turned out to be not impossible. A woman has to be very determined to take the superwoman path. There must be a better solution.”

Lately, with the Y-generation’s entry to the workforce, and the increase of pressure on both men and women, the debate over joint and equal parenthood has emerged as an alternative to both the mommy track and the superwoman.

“Women cannot continue to be the victims of progress and equal rights,” says Koenig-Yair. “The situation that demands a woman to direct the activities of 200 employees, while simultaneously running a perfect home, isn’t sustainable. Women need real assistance so that their wish to both realize their professional potential and raise a family won’t harm anyone. Truly equal couples, for example, can have each parent joining the children twice a week at 4 o’clock, and with the help of a grandparent or babysitter for the fifth school day, they can both be good parents, without forfeiting their career success.”

Koenig-Yair practices what she preaches: Her husband, a high-tech entrepreneur, took upon himself at least half the chores related to the family and three kids. She says he spends more time with the children, since she commutes to Jerusalem every day from their home in the south, and often travels to other cities in Israel as part of her work. The family spent the past year in the United States after Koenig-Yair won a coveted Wexner grant. The couple is aware that as long as Koenig-Yair continues her studies, her husband will be more active with the children. “I could never have made progress in my work without him,” she insists. “It would have been absolutely impossible.”

Prof. Moore underlines the importance of the new model: “The mommy track damages the woman, who often won’t be able to reclaim her career, as well as the husband, who is estranged from the home that becomes her personal palace. The superwoman is also the wrong model. The woman falls apart and becomes bitter, and naturally much of that bitterness is directed at her partner. The right way to face the modern job market is to do it together. Children aren’t solely mom’s department, but both parents’ department. This issue should be part of the couple’s agreement when they decide to live together. Both have careers, and both need genuine constant support. The traditional structure – dad at work, mom at home, or dad at work, and mom both at work and at home – should be phased out.”

Utopia?

Ziv Mendel, CEO of a private company, tells how difficult it was persuading kindergarten teaches to phone him if there was any problem with their child. “For years, they used to call only my wife. Then they slowly managed to understand there’s also a father.” His wife is, naturally, pleased with the arrangement.
“It isn’t a utopia, it’s not a dream,” Moore insists. “Everything is changing, and very rapidly at that. The Y-generation is more aware of the need for balance and is searching for the right balance between work and life. Metrosexual men do not live in the office and do not define themselves only through their work, but also by their families and leisure activities. Add to that the high rates of divorce and we find many men who, for one reason or another, are full partners in parenthood.”

Moore says the message to women is simple: Insist they come home. She says men who do so suddenly discover their children and enjoy themselves. “Only joint parenthood can make working men and women happier, calmer and more efficient, willing to contribute to the work market in particular and the country’s economy in general,” she adds.

Motti Kimche
Tomer Appelbaum
Tomer Appelbaum