The Hollow Pyramid

Only by electing additional women who can prove their abilities can the prejudices against female politicians be diminished.

Ricki Shay is competing against 12 men in Ashkelon's mayoral race. She is a teacher, the owner of a computer studies college with a doctorate in behavioral sciences, and mother of four children. She participates in workshops and meetings arranged by the Israel Women's Network and WePower [Amutat Ken] to support female candidates throughout the country. She holds parlor meetings and is willing to speak to any forum that will have her.

Shay is targeting a population that is generally underserved by politicians - women who don't vote - in an attempt to persuade them that they have the power to make a difference. But despite her efforts, like most of the women campaigning in over 250 cities and local councils, Shay's chances in next month's elections are not high.

Over the years the number of women contending for local office has increased greatly, and the number who have won places on local councils has grown fourfold, but there has been no rise in the number who have managed to reach the top. Only 10 women have ever been elected head of a local government.

In the previous elections, in 2003, two female mayors - Yael German in Herzliya and Miriam Feierberg in Netanya - and three local council heads were elected. Of the latter, only one is still in office, although last year Flora Shoshan was elected mayor of Mitzpeh Ramon.

At 32, the number of women running for head of a local government will be similar this time around. Unlike in 2003, however, six of these are in the south - an unprecedented number for this region. The women's organizations hope to increase female representation through what seems to be shaping up as a global shift in consciousness, to wit Hillary Clinton's presidential bid, the selection of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Segolene Royal's presidential candidacy in France, the election of Michelle Bachelet as president of Chile and Tzipi Livni's bid for the premiership. If Livni manages to form a government, Israel will be the only country in the world with women at the head of all three branches of government: Livni of the executive branch, Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik of the legislative branch and Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch of the judicial branch.

Even if this constellation comes to be, however, it would appear to be a historic accident in light of the fact that the pyramid is hollow. Israel is in 82nd place among the world's nations in terms of female representation in politics, way behind such countries as Pakistan and Rwanda. Even as conservative a state as India passed a law over a decade ago requiring at least one-third of the country's village councils to be headed by women.

The reasons usually cited for the situation in Israel sound like tired excuses, but it's hard to deny that the prominence of security issues in the national dialogue, together with the exclusion from public life of women in the ultra-Orthodox community, have remained the Achilles' heel of women in Israeli politics.

According to a 2003 study by Prof. Hanna Herzog, the findings of which appear in "Women in Israel 2006 - Between Theory and Practice" (Israel Women's Network), 86 percent of women holding elected office in Israel have university degrees, almost half of them a Master's or PhD, compared with about 20 percent of the general population. Ranged against the education and skills of these women are piles upon piles of prejudices, men with greater economic abilities and a business or military background, and party central committees that seek to preserve male hegemony even on the local level.

Women who have succeeded in local politics did so, on the whole, by running on independent tickets. Feierberg, too, who previously ran as a Likud candidate, is running as an independent this time around. Campaign experts claim that women lack assertiveness and powers of persuasion. That's why the workshops for female candidates teach participants debating skills, including how to use their hands and voices to hammer home their message, and how to behave in a television interview.

But body language is no substitute for two critical processes required for change - getting the national leadership to promote women in politics and convincing women that they have a duty to vote for female candidates. Too many female voters in Israel are not aware of the importance of this, or tend to prefer to vote for men.

German and Feierberg are both running for a third term, and are almost guaranteed victory as a result of their achievements. German has chalked up successes against greedy real estate developers with their eye on valuable public spaces in Herzliya, and Feierberg has proved that she is not afraid to confront the crime families operating in Netanya. German, Feierberg, Livni, Itzik and Beinisch prove that women are capable. Only by electing additional women who can prove their abilities can the prejudices against female politicians be diminished.