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The Alef-bet of Lower Wages for Women: Why Israel Needs to Kick Out Sexism From Its Kids' Story Books

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Book week in Tel Aviv, 2006
Book week in Tel Aviv, 2006Credit: Nir Keidar
Sharon Sznitman
Sharon Sznitman

It is late in the afternoon and my six-year-old takes out "Power to Read", a book approved by Israel's Education Ministry to help first graders learn to read in the most efficient way. My son is so proud when he starts reading, and he doesn't stop after one story or two. Instead, he continues reading because it's fun. It gives him a sense of achievement and pride. I feel proud, too, listening to him read.

Then he comes across a story that changes my mood for the worse. My son reads:

Anat the bride

Anat wore a queen’s dress

Barak said, "You are pretty, really like a bride."

Anat was pleased, she danced and laughed.

Naama saw and said: "You are a bride, you are pretty."

Barak put a flower in a vase and gave it to Anat the bride.

International research and research from Israel shows that many school textbooks are filled with gender stereotypes: women are often presented purely in a domestic capacity, cooking, cleaning and caring for children.

The stories we tell our children matter. They matter because they nurture perceptions of what is acceptable, desirable and achievable.

Women in Israel earn 35% less than men. This is one of the highest earnings gap among Western countries.

Story hour at a Tel Aviv children's bookstore, 12 August 2008Credit: David Bachar

Nehemia Shtrasler recently made the important point in Haaretz (Why Women in Israel Make 35% Less than Men, and How to Change It) that the Israeli wage gender gap is not first and foremost about wage discrimination. It is much more about women working fewer hours, in lower-paying jobs than their male counterparts.

The factors that lead to these differences are manifold. They include state level policies (or lack thereof) to ensure subsidized and quality pre-school and after school activities, and equal long-term parental leave for mothers and fathers.

The differences are, however, also partly about the choices we make in our own lives. These choices are, however, not made at random. They are influenced by our culture.

Through the stories we tell our children, girls grow up to make work-life choices that allow them to come home early from work and take care of children. Boys grow up to become men that believe that they need to bring home a respectable salary and are thus willing to work overtime.

Both men and women lose out in this situation of old-fashioned gendered life choices. Research shows that men are more unhappy and anxious when they are the sole breadwinner. When women are the main breadwinner, their psychological wellbeing is actually improved.

Kindergarten children opening the Shavuot parade at Kibbutz Shamir.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkowitz

One way to reduce the gap in salaries between men and women in Israel is to start telling our children new stories that will inspire them to choose differently in relation to studies and work.

Boys and girls are diverse. For them to be able to become who they want to be they need access to many different types of stories and narratives.

We need plenty of stories that tell girls that they are not primarily objects of beauty and that their goal in life is to be chosen by a man who gives them flowers. We need to tell stories that inspire girls to be so much more than a girlfriend, mother and a wife and that they are empowered to choose their own destiny.

We need new stories that tell boys that the girls in their classrooms, their mothers, their future female work colleagues, bosses and friends are not objects of beauty. They are their equal partners both at work and in private life. We need stories that enable our boys to aspire to be so much more than breadwinners. Aspirations that will make them choose to stay at home when their kids are sick and be there when their children cross small and large milestones.

Young children at a secular Israeli kindergarten (illustrative).Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

I wish that the stories my son read out loud to me would be more diverse. That they would be about boys who are vulnerable - and sometimes get saved by a girl. As well as stories about mothers who take care of children, I want him to read stories about fathers who do the same. I want him to read stories about boys and girls who overcome struggles and go on adventures together with no distinction according to gender.

I wonder what mental shift that would give him and his classmates, what would it stir in their imagination?

Stories will not, of course, be enough. We also need social policies that enable men and women to act on their aspirations. We have a long way to go in many aspects regarding gender equality in Israel.

But maybe, if we, together with the Education Ministry, tell new and more diverse stories to our children today, they will grow up to be the policymakers who will implement those much-needed policies in the future.

Dr. Sharon Sznitman is a sociologist and a senior lecturer at the School of Public Health at the University of Haifa. Her research focuses on medical cannabis policies, substance use and child and adolescent health

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