Women, the Most Deprived Group in Israel

The American conversation about careers and gender shows that women there have a long way to go, but Israel has yet to even start talking.

A debate is developing in the American media between two opposing world views, as represented by two women at the pinnacle of their personal and professional lives. On one side is Anne-Marie Slaughter, a high-ranking official in the Obama administration who left an impressive career at the State Department to raise her children, and thereby caused an enormous uproar in the United States. On the other is Marissa Mayer, the chief executive of Yahoo, who, when she announced she was returning to work just a month after giving birth, was promptly accused of neglecting her child.

These cases express extreme positions on the interface between career, feminism and the status of women in the modern working world.

While there are many other approaches – and not just in theory – that are better and more balanced, one cannot reject either of them as unworthy. Every woman has the right to shape her own world according to her abilities, desires and feelings. But the debate developing in the United States around issues of career and gender is clear evidence that women who wish to combine career and family are experiencing a terrible crisis.

It seems the feminist revolution has given women a double burden, and has not created true balance between men and women as far as the duties of raising a family. In addition, women still earn less than men and face the glass ceiling when it comes to professional promotion.

We can agree or disagree with the various opinions in the public debate that is going on in the U.S. But we cannot help but regret that this debate has not reached Israel.

In Israel, women – who comprise 51 percent of the population – are the sector that is perhaps the most deprived in proportion to its size. Unfortunately, women and women’s groups have not managed to translate the strength of their numbers into political influence. We can only look with envy at other sectors that have learned to use their power to promote their particular interests far beyond their numbers. The agricultural sector and the large workers’ committees have effectively translated their power into political influence and consumer clout – to say nothing of the Haredim.

We can use the upcoming election campaign to try to promote a cross-party women’s agenda. The women’s organizations should create an ad-hoc coalition to demand the parties add clear, explicit statements to their platforms regarding the status of women and the integration of women into the job market.

In addition, affirmative action is needed to bring women into the corridors of power. Without affirmative action, it will be difficult for women to move into positions of influence. This step has already been taken by government and public companies, where quotas have been set for the number of female directors and board members. Now, laws must be made that will establish a quota for women on Knesset and faction lists, as in the Scandinavian system where women must make up 40 percent parliamentary lists.

But in order to promote true integration of women in the job market, a wide-scale support system is necessary. On the one hand, incentives and tax breaks should be used to encourage employers to hire women. On the other, we must push for a long school day that includes meals and in-school tutoring to help with homework. At the same time, a network of day-care centers, some of them in workplaces, should be opened.

These and other measures will help to integrate women into the job market and provide a solution, if only a partial one, to the terrible dilemma that many women face when it comes to combining career and family. Instead of forcing women to choose between family and career, the state would do well to make use of women’s abilities, education and willingness to join the work force. By doing so, it would allow women self-fulfillment, which would enable them to contribute both to themselves and to the society in which they live and work.

Esther Luzzatto is a member of the board of Ben-Gurion University, a partner of the Luzzatto & Luzzatto patent law firm, a member of the Omer local council and a social-justice activist in the Negev.