International Women’s Day could be the most important date on the social calendar of Israel. Sadly, it has become a tiresome excuse for presenting a litany of female woes or for paying lip-service to gender equality rather than an annual reminder of the principle of social equity which stands at its core. Indeed, in Israel — as in many societies throughout the world — socioeconomic discrepancies and gender inequalities go hand in hand, systematically reinforcing each other. To resurrect March 8th as a benchmark, it must be imbued with renewed meaning. It is an occasion to assess progress in reducing gender gaps and to reaffirm a commitment to their eradication as an essential step in the quest for a more egalitarian society.

Israel in 2014 still boasts glaring levels of gender inequality on a broad spectrum of measures, ranging from income and occupational distribution, to power and personal status. The Gender Index, published by the Center for the Advancement of Women at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute (which I co-direct with Professor Hanna Herzog) now supplies the much-needed data to trace the extent of gender inequality in the country and to provide information that can help policy makers and activists alike design concrete steps to ameliorate ongoing inequities.

The essence of the gender inequality paradox can be summarized briefly. During the past decade (2004-2013) the situation of women on most scores has improved substantially; at the same time, the gap between men and women has remained constant (and in some instances, has actually increased). The most marked deterioration exists in the labor market. Although women constitute 47% of the workforce in Israel, they make up more than double the number of part-time workers (525,200) than men (244,200). More to the point, men still earn more than women in the same jobs. The average monthly income of men in 2012 was NIS 10,953; for women it was only NIS 7,244 (roughly 66% that of men). Income per hour was also lower for women than for men (NIS46.18 as compared to NIS55.1). The median income of men was NIS 7,774; for women it reached only NIS 5,489. In a very fragile and inequitable labor market, gender inequality rose by 2.6% during the course of 2012 alone (the last year for which full data is available).

The sustained inequality in the labor market is closely connected to the gendered nature of professional distribution in the country. In an almost predictable manner, male representation far outdistances that of female in high income, high status occupations, such as engineering and architecture (76,000 vs. 23,000). In medicine and related fields, on the other hand, women’s representation has grown in comparison to men, but the average income has actually dropped — a sign of the feminization of the profession. Even in law, in which 47% of practitioners in Israel are female, the income gap between men and women remains at about 25%. And the percentage of women in hi-tech has not really varied in over a decade (about 35%). In low status and low income positions, women are an absolute majority. Fully 78% of all teachers in Israel are female. Caregivers, who earn an average of NIS 4,000 a month, are overwhelmingly female (93%).

The problem is clear: the Israeli economy is gender-segregated, both in terms of occupation and in terms of major fields (services, industry, hi-tech, agriculture and the like). Indeed, most of the labor market is so differentiated by gender that 47% of employees in Israel would have to change jobs in order to attain gender equality (and the income parity that it secures). It is hardly surprising, therefore, that poverty levels in Israel — the highest among OECD countries — are also gendered (19.9% of women vs. 17.3% of men).

The patterns evident in the economic sphere are replicated in other fields as well. In the political arena, despite improvements following the 2013 elections, women still constitute only 22.5% of the members of the Knesset (ranking at the lowest end of democratic countries). The number of female ministers in the present government, four, is the highest in Israel’s history and among the smallest in the western world. At the municipal level, the situation is much worse, with barely 13% of the newly elected local councils consisting of women and a paltry 6 out of 256 women standing at their helm. This picture is symptomatic of the situation in other foci of decision-making. Only 31% of local government managers are female. Women comprise only 41% of the highest echelons of the civil service, even though they make up over 65% of government employees. In the private sector, barely 14% of CEOs (5,957) are women; 86% are men (36,114). In the past ten years, the power dimension of the gender gap has actually grown.

Similar data have been recorded in many other areas such as health, family status and — sadly — violence against women. These trends are particularly pronounced amongst women in the periphery and Arab women in Israel (although in the latter instance, increased rates of education and reduced birthrates have somewhat narrowed the gap between them and their Jewish counterparts).

Put together, Israel has not succeeded in reducing the gender gap during the past decade. This is particularly puzzling as the only dimension in which women outscore men is education. Forty-eight percent of Israeli females boast over 13 years of education (23.9% more possess more than 16 years), in comparison to 45.2% of men (20.7% of whom have more than 16 years of education). Israel thus emerges as one of the few countries in the world in which educational qualifications are not translated into improved economic prospects and inclusion in decision-making positions.

The question is why? Among the many reasons that can be mustered, two stand out. Cultural explanations provide some of the answer. Since 2005 the Jewish birthrate has risen steadily, reaching 3.05 per woman (making Israel the only country in the developed world with a birthrate above three — in the U.S., Britain and Sweden it is below two). Heavy family duties (what is known as the “second shift”) encourage less investment in the workplace and a predilection for part-time labor. Thus, while Israeli women have been freed to work, they have not been liberated from home duties, as social norms still militate against equality in sharing the burden at home.

Part of the answer, however, lies in the structure of the public sphere, which is heavily gendered — to the detriment of the interest of society at large. Maintaining these constructs not only compromises gender equality and perpetuates socioeconomic discrepancies in general, it exacts an immense price in the inability to capitalize on the enormous untapped human resources possessed by women.

Closing the gender gap is hence a practical as well as a social and moral priority. It cannot be done without providing for a constant flow of data to guide strategy both at the official level and that of civil society. Beyond the obvious need to narrow gender discrepancies in specific fields — a task already assumed by women’s organizations and some government agencies — a massive policy overhaul is overdue. This involves the initiation of steps to redress the work-family imbalance by granting incentives to men to assume a greater role in child-rearing. It also requires an expansion of daycare facilities in the workplace, and, at long last, an extension of the school day to conform the work day.

But, above all, a campaign to address the gender gap must provide for the inclusion women and a variety of women’s perspectives in decision-making processes. Gender-mainstreaming has become the key to both structural and subsequent normative change in most advanced societies. It can play the same role in Israel — as the early results from the Committee on Gendering the Budget indicate — when the will is there. This requires the vigorous use of affirmative action measures where necessary, as well as careful gendered analyses of policies and their implementation in both the public and private sectors.

International Women’s Day, when used as an annual opportunity for self-evaluation, can help pinpoint gender inequalities and establish priorities for action. As long as the gap between men and women is sustained, Israel — like other countries — will not enjoy the fruits of social equity.

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