Opinion

Where Do Promising Women Disappear After Giving Birth?

Roni Bar
Roni Bar
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Where have all the women gone? We can reasonably assume that they are now picking up their children from preschool.
Where have all the women gone? We can reasonably assume that they are now picking up their children from preschool.Credit: Shopping King Louie / Shutterstock
Roni Bar
Roni Bar

It happened a minute before the coronavirus outbreak, said one young female academic. She and many others attended a conference in February whose purpose was to advise Israel’s best minds as to how to solve the most difficult equation of all: How to attain a position in the country’s institutions of higher education. Seated before the audience on the dais were two female lecturers who offered lots of tips: go abroad, publish, find a way in, be aggressive.

Everything was great until they started to discuss the stopwatch that starts ticking the moment an academic submits his or her doctoral thesis. “You have five years,” the participants were told. Five years in which to publish articles, to be accepted for a post-doctorate or a teaching position. And if you haven’t done that within that period – forget it. Your doctorate will gather dust, it’s no longer relevant, and neither are you.

It’s important to note that the academic stopwatch is like another sort of stopwatch that women carry around inside them – relating to fertility. An Israeli woman begins her higher education after the army; in other words, relatively late. That’s why, by the time she completes her doctorate, she is usually over 30.

The female academic who attended the conference explains that 32 is a reasonable age, and many women can be expected to finish their doctorate at the ages of 33, 34 or 35. Which is probably why a woman in the audience dared to raise her hand and ask: What happens if those five years are precisely when I’m having children? After those years I won’t have a chance to start a family. It’s a Catch 22 situation.

The answer from the dais was simple: You’ll probably have to choose what’s more important to you: children or a career.

This situation is clearly reflected in the data submitted to the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women exactly two years ago, in June 2018. Women constitute about 53 percent of doctoral students in Israel, but only 32 percent of senior faculty members. This imbalance is not only reflected in appointments made in the past. The situation of women is not much better even when we examine it vis-à-vis the senior posts being filled today: In most of the country’s universities it is about 35 percent.

Graduating Masters students in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., May 15, 2020.
Graduating Masters students in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., May 15, 2020.Credit: REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

Where have all the women gone? We can reasonably assume that they are now picking up their children from preschool.

Even in the ivory towers, the bastions of liberal and progressive thought, it still turns out that the glass ceiling is far lower than one would have expected. Throughout their childhood women born in the 1980s heard about the grim world that “once” existed: Once, women used to be in the kitchen; once, we didn’t have a career; once, there was no chance of getting to the wonderful places that are open to us today. Nonsense.

Once, the mechanisms were out in the open but now they hide behind stale bureaucratic “rules” – like the one stating that five years is a doctorate’s expiration date. Or in Excel documents that measure output during the most important decade in one’s career – the decade when a woman typically becomes a mother – between ages 30 and 40.

We can continue to wonder where promising women disappear after they give birth. What happened to them? Why don’t they attain senior academic positions? Why aren’t they part of the administration? It’s a shame, many will say; they had so much potential. But that would be hypocrisy.

Figures from the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel show that until the age of 30 there is almost gender equality in the job market. But from that moment on, the balance is tipped against women, and the wage gap as compared to men increases to a point where it cannot be bridged.

That is not predestined. Nor is it a coincidence. It’s a pattern. The sooner we acknowledge its existence, the sooner we will be able to fight it.