UNITED NATIONS – There are cracks in the proverbial glass ceiling, but it’s still firmly in place. That was the crux of a report the government of Israel submitted to the United Nations in New York last week.
The Knesset passed nearly 50 initiatives to promote gender equality and empower women during the past four years. Nevertheless, Israeli women still face discrimination in nearly every aspect of life, manifested especially in the religious and family court systems, salary gaps and underrepresentation in elected positions. A report, “The Status of Women in Israel,” was delivered to the UN on March 11 during a two-week series of meetings on women that ends March 20.
“There is a lot of awareness of this phenomenon and women are speaking out. Women are starting to be proud that they are feminists,” Israeli actress and director Hana Azoulay Hasfari told The Times of Israel in the crowded UN cafeteria. “Our mission at the UN this week is to emphasize these things.”
Azoulay Hasfari, together with Knesset Secretary Yardena Meller-Horowitz, Jean Judas, the executive director of disabilities advocacy organization Beit Issie Shapira, and Hava Karrie, deputy director of the Golda Meir Mount Carmel Leadership Training Center for women, were in New York to attend the UN’s 59th Commission on the Status of Women.
During the two-week summit, which opened March 9, representatives from governments worldwide will work to advance gender equality in all areas of life, including banning child marriages, increasing access to health care, eliminating violence against women, increasing political equality, closing the pay gap and improving the rights of girls.
The summit marks the 20th Anniversary of the Beijing Declaration, which came out of the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women. Gender equality remains the main focus of this annual summit, as it was then.
As part of the summit, the Israeli women participated in an afternoon seminar hosted by the Israeli mission to the UN called “Education – the Power behind Empowering Women.”
Local politics the key to more female politicians
In conversation with The Times of Israel, each of the four women said the state has a role in empowering women, and the topic quickly turned to politics.
While there are more women in the Knesset than ever before – 27 of the 120 MKs are women – politics on the local level remains an overwhelmingly male domain. Only 2.7 percent of Israeli mayors are women.
In the United States, women account for 17.6% of mayoralties in cities with populations over 30,000, according to Rutgers University’s American Center for Women and Politics. In the US Congress, women hold 104 seats out of a total of 535 seats; in the Senate women hold 20 out of 100 seats, and in the House of Representatives they hold 84 out of 435 seats.
Out of 136 countries, Israel ranked 57 for female political empowerment, compared with the US, which ranked 54, Jordan, which ranked 119, and Saudi Arabia, which ranked 117
According to a 2014 World Economic Forum report, out of 136 countries, Israel ranked 57th for female political empowerment, compared with the US, which ranked 54th, Jordan, which ranked 119th, and Saudi Arabia, which ranked 117th.
To help shift the balance of power in Israel, the Knesset passed a law to provide an additional 15% in funding to municipal party lists when women make up least one-third of its members.
“Getting elected to local office is a springboard for national office, but more needs to be done to encourage young women to take part in leadership, to get involved in the first place,” said Meller-Horowitz, who became the first female secretary-general of the Knesset in 2004.
Getting women involved needs to start at a young age. One way is for young women to take leadership courses such as those offered at the Golda Meir Training Center, Karrie said.
Past training courses include teaching how to recognize gender biases in local governance and obstacles to equal participation of women. Training sessions show how everything from urban planning to safety and security benefit from the participation of women.
‘So many of these towns and villages are patriarchal. We have to go from the bottom up’
“So many of these towns and villages are patriarchal. We have to go from the bottom up. It’s very important to raise up local leaders and do this on a local level,” Karrie said.
According to the Israeli report, the Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women in Israel also conducts leadership courses for women, with the goal of creating a core of women with the potential to assume key positions. During 2013, about 700 women participated in such courses.
While much more needs to be done, all is not bleak, said Rolene Marks, an advocate for women’s rights who also volunteers for the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO).
Marks said she was pleased to note changes, particularly in the religious community.
“Ultra-religious women are playing a role in politics like never before,” Marks said in a telephone interview from her home in Israel.
Earlier this year Bizchutan: Haredi Women Making Change, the first Israeli political party dedicated to ultra-Orthodox women, was launched. The Knesset also passed a bill mandating female representation on the committee responsible for appointing rabbinical judges.
Money matters: The gender pay gap stands at 60% worldwide
Aside from government, the report looked at employment and salaries. The report acknowledged, “The wage gap between men and women remains highly stable throughout the years, despite extensive legislation mandating equal pay for equal work.”
The gender pay gap stands at 60% worldwide, according to the Swiss-based World Economic Forum.
Although Israeli law prohibits discrimination based on gender in employment and wages, women earn nearly 32% less than men on average
Although Israeli law prohibits discrimination based on gender in employment and wages, women earn nearly 32% less than men on average, according to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics. Israeli women earned a monthly average of NIS 7,280 ($1,820) while men earned NIS 10,683 ($2,666).
This salary discrepancy is partly because women work fewer hours than men on average. Still, the hourly wage gap between Israeli women and men was 15.5%.
US women earn 77% of what men earn and face pay gaps in nearly every occupation, according to the American Association of University Women. Australian women face a gender pay gap of 17%.
Israeli women who worked as teachers, nurses and social workers were financially better off than those who worked in sales and caregiving.
The wage disparity also affects women in minorities and in the disabled population.
“Even in the disabled population, disabled men earn more than disabled women,” Judas noted.
Women are promoted into senior positions whereas men are hired into senior positions. Women account for 33% of management positions. And in the high-tech sector, women constitute 35.5% of the total workers, according to the CBS.
However, Marks said, there are sectors of the economy where women have made gains.
“Women may not be as well represented in business, but I think the gaps are narrowing. For instance, in academia we are seeing a lot of progress there,” Marks said.
Women comprise 58% of people employed in academic professions in Israel, according to the report submitted to the UN.
In 2013, Malka Schaps became the first female ultra-Orthodox dean when she was appointed dean of Bar-Ilan University’s Faculty of Exact Sciences. Also, during the 2013-14 academic year, 58% of students pursuing higher education were women, according to the CBS. Comparatively, in 1969-70 women constituted less than half, or 43%, of students attending higher education.
The Ministry for Science, Technology and Space wants to increase the percentage of women seeking advanced degrees in the physical sciences, of which 38% are women. By way of comparison, American women currently earn 41% of PhDs in science.
Social discrimination also more a female problem
Women also suffer from social discrimination, another area where much more must be done, said Judas of Beit Issie Shapira. The Ministry of Social Welfare prohibits women over 40 from adopting newborns, as well as women with disabilities of any age. Women with HIV are also prohibited from adopting.
“To have a double stigma is a catastrophe. You’re a woman and you’re disabled. You’re a woman and you have HIV. You’re a woman and you’re over 40,” Judas said. “Everyone has a right to decide. It shouldn’t be against the law.”
In keeping with the idea of a woman’s right to choose her destiny, Hasfari screened part of her 2014 film “Orange People” during the afternoon seminar.
Hasfari based the film on her mother, who was married at age of 12. It tells the story of how the trauma affected three generations of Israeli women of Moroccan descent.
In 2013 Israel raised the legal age of marriage for girls from 17 to 18 in a bid to ensure that young women complete secondary school. Neighboring Jordan recently raised the legal age of marriage to 18 for both boys and girls from 16 for boys and 15 for girls, citing the need for the completion of secondary school.
“Education for girls and women is not just to learn to read and write,” Hasfari said. “It’s about assertiveness. It’s about learning to be economically independent. As a feminist I think we women are all carrying this ancient collective memory of being treated as an object. It’s about getting the power to stand up and change your destiny.”