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Netanyahu Should Tap Women for Directors General of Government Ministries

Malchiel Balas
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Transportation Ministry director-general Keren Turner-Eyal, who was fired by phone while on maternity leave, Tel Aviv, November 27, 2019
Transportation Ministry director-general Keren Turner-Eyal, who was fired by phone while on maternity leave, Tel Aviv, November 27, 2019Credit: Meged Gozani
Malchiel Balas

The new cabinet has 34 members, among whom eight – fewer than a quarter – are women. The members of the cabinet will be seeking to appoint directors general at their ministries. From experience, a negligible number of female directors general will be appointed. To the best of my knowledge, when the outgoing cabinet ended its term, there were only two women directors general at the helm of government ministries.

Shamefully, one of them, at the Transportation Ministry, was fired over the phone by the incoming minister, even before the minister took office. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should act to rectify the situation and see to it that women are suitably represented in this senior post.

Bibi swears in his colossal coalition and readies for a courtroom showdown Credit: Haaretz

The civil service law provides that among the members of the civil service at all levels and professions, at every ministry and every affiliated agency “appropriate expression will be given, under the circumstances, to representation from both sexes, of people with disabilities, of members of the Arab population, including Druze and Circassians, of those who were born or with one parent who was born in Ethiopia, of people from the ultra-Orthodox population and of new immigrants.”

The law applies at the level of directors general of government ministries and affiliated agencies even though among such a limited group of a few dozen directors general, it’s difficult to provide appropriate representation to every group that has a history of underrepresentation. Women are the largest group in society for whom the law has not been complied with. A situation in which women are not appropriately represented at the highest level at every government ministry is illegal, improper and ultimately does damage to the development of public policy that takes the broad spectrum of needs and the diversity of Israeli society into account.

Granted that it is not clear exactly what the appropriate rate of representation of women would be among the ministry directors general, but a level that doesn’t even reflect an attempt to approach a third cannot be considered appropriate. And as long as the cabinet is not acting to give women appropriate representation, there is almost no chance that it will work to provide appropriate representation of the other groups that are underrepresented at senior levels.

One of the reasons that women are underrepresented among ministry directors general is that the appointment is considered the exclusive privilege of the minister in charge, as if therefore the issue doesn’t have to be taken into consideration. As a result, despite the fact that, by law, it is the cabinet that is authorized to appoint ministry directors general – upon the recommendation of the minister of each ministry – the cabinet does not see that it is responsible for ensuring appropriate representation of women and other groups.

The cabinet bylaws provide that it is the prime minister who is empowered to place issues on the cabinet’s agenda. It is therefore he who bears the responsibility to have the cabinet decide on the appointment of directors general in a situation in which various groups in society are not appropriately represented among them. The issue is particularly prominent when it comes to women.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and Civil Service Commissioner Daniel Hershkowitz should bring it to the prime minister’s attention that it is he who should deal with the appointment of directors general from the standpoint of the cabinet as a whole rather than only considering each ministry individually. He needs to ask each cabinet minister to present the cabinet with female candidates for director general.

In his written request to the members of the cabinet, Netanyahu can cite the Babylonian Talmud, which states: “Rabbi Yitzhak said: if a person would tell you ‘I searched and didn’t find’ – don’t believe it; ‘I didn’t search and I found’ – don’t believe it; ‘I searched and I found’ – believe it.”

The prime minister should refrain from bringing male director-general candidates for cabinet approval as long as he remains unconvinced that female candidates have not been nominated at other ministries and agencies. He can easily check this out before the first director-general appointment is brought before the new cabinet. If Netanyahu doesn’t act in this regard, none of the other cabinet ministers will view themselves as responsible for such appropriate representation.

Perhaps, in the words of the national anthem, our hope is yet not lost, and the prospect exists that Netanyahu himself will for once serve as a personal example and for the first time appoint a female director general of the Prime Minister’s Office to succeed her 24 male predecessors.

Balas is a former deputy attorney general.

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