'Language can advance values and effect social change'

Universities bristle at demand to use only masculine form in official documents

Tel Aviv University says it will ‘uphold its practice of publishing tenders that address men and women equally’; Bezalel art school to use only feminine form for a month

Students at Tel Aviv University on the first day of the academic year, October 10, 2021. (Flash90, via JTA)
Students at Tel Aviv University on the first day of the academic year, October 10, 2021. (Flash90, via JTA)

Several Israeli universities have announced that they will not comply with a new civil service directive that would oblige them to scrap the practice of using masculine-feminine suffixes when publishing job tenders and employ only the masculine form.

Hebrew nouns are gendered, with the word changing form to indicate whether it is masculine or feminine. When addressing mixed-gender groups, usage traditionally defaults to the masculine form. To boost gender equality, many have taken to including both the masculine and feminine form of the word, using a slash mark to include both. (A roughly analogous usage in English would be a restaurant job posting for a “waiter/ress,” but without the anachronistic flavor.)

The directive, published last week by Civil Service Commissioner Daniel Hershkowitz, cited the Hebrew Language Academy in stating that “the masculine form is also used as a neutral, non-gendered form.”

It also stated that using masculine-feminine suffixes is “cumbersome and can make reading more difficult.” He added that tenders would note that the use of the masculine form was due to linguistic accuracy, and that both male and female applicants are welcome to apply.

Responding to the directive, at least four institutions of higher education said Sunday that they would not comply.

“In response to the Civil Service Commission’s directive, the university announces that it will uphold its practice of publishing tenders that address men and women equally and respectfully, and will continue to put out official publications in gender-inclusive language,” Tel Aviv University said in a statement.

“To put up with an exclusively masculine [form of] address would delay progress toward the goal of equality,” the university added, saying the notion that the hyphenated form was “cumbersome” was superseded by the pursuit of equality.

Civil Service Commissioner Daniel Hershkowitz in Jerusalem, December 24, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the University of Haifa put out similar statements asserting that they would continue to publish tenders using explicitly gender-inclusive language.

The Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design went a step further, saying in a statement that in protest of the directive, “in the coming month Bezalel will use only the feminine form in all of its publications.”

“Language can advance values and effect [social] change,” it said. “Bezalel is committed to equality and gender fairness.”

The universities’ concerns were echoed in an open letter signed by 100 senior officials in government ministries.

“The choice to change the directive threatens to undo delicate achievements and bears, even if only on the declarative level, a negative message to the male and female civil service workers,” they said.

“As male and female managers who are required to recruit manpower for the civil service… we do not understand the need for this linguistic clarification at this specific time. To the best of our knowledge, there was no specific update on the matter from the Hebrew Language Academy, so we were surprised to see your new directive.”

The Israel Electric Corporation and several other companies and bodies also rejected the new directive.

Research from North America, albeit from a decade ago, has shown that women are less likely to apply to job ads that use gendered masculine language.

Responding last week to Hershkowitz’s directive, Labor party leader Merav Michaeli, a leading proponent of gender equality in the Knesset, said, “This is exactly how the exclusion of over 50% of the population looks.”

“They don’t just want to not appoint women, they don’t even want them to apply,” she said.

The Netanyahu government has been repeatedly criticized for its policies toward women, including for the low number of women in leadership positions in the coalition.

The government came under fire last week for advancing a bill to reorganize the official national authority for advancing gender equality. Critics say the move will deprive the authority of its professional independence and instead subject it to the whims of politicians.

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