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Between us girls (and boys too)

Israel is having a hard time establishing gender parity in government; would quotas for women in key positions expedite the process?
Back when the future looked more promising for the women of the Knesset: MK Aliza Lavie of Yesh Atid (center) with Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni (right) at a Committee for the Status of Women meeting in the Knesset, June 10, 2013. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Back when the future looked more promising for the women of the Knesset: MK Aliza Lavie of Yesh Atid (center) with Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni (right) at a Committee for the Status of Women meeting in the Knesset, June 10, 2013. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

From suffragettes to modern day feminists, women and men have fought long and hard for women’s right to vote and hold office. Women are still underrepresented in politics, parliaments, and public life. Progress is clear. But progress has been slow and uneven.

In Israel today, there are no women CEOs of government companies, only five percent of those in charge of a local authority are women, and 18% of elected officials in local authorities are women. The list goes on and on. Attitudes towards female candidates are still largely characterized by deeply ingrained stereotypes, and political opponents will often use those stereotypes to question a woman’s capabilities.

Is it appropriate that since the establishment of the State of Israel, there has never been a female chair of the Finance Committee, the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee or the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee of the Knesset? Women make up 51% of the population of Israel. The proportion of women in the Knesset at the beginning of the millennium was merely 13% and today, more than 20 years later, it stands only at 23%. According to data of the Ken Association, women do not cross the 20% threshold in all senior statutory positions: CEOs, engineers, legal advisers, treasurers, or/and even auditors. Why is this the case in 2021?

Here are a few thoughts, between us girls (and boys too!):

There is a growing recognition around the world that women in 2021 are still marginalized from political and public life. In the past few years, we have seen this play out in high profile elections around the world. Women are putting themselves forward for candidacy more and more, yet their numbers elected are still far behind those of men. Why is this the case? Even though it is widely accepted that development, peace, and prosperity in societies cannot be achieved without half of the world’s population, women continue to be sidelined in decision-making. The stigma against women in politics is still alive and well. They continue to face structural, socioeconomic, institutional, and cultural barriers.

Tackling this situation takes effort on the part of every element of society, whether of government, civil society, the media, academia, the private sector, youth and, yes, even of me. The solution is having fixed quotas for the adequate representation of women in positions of leadership.  Gender quotas to increase the political representation of women have recently been introduced in about half of the countries in the world. About 45 countries have introduced electoral gender quotas by law, while in another approximately 50 countries some political parties have written voluntary party quotas into their statutes. Today, women constitute approximately 18% of the members of all the world’s parliaments. In Europe, as in the rest of the world, women are still underrepresented in political decision-making assemblies. Many initiatives have started to promote an increase in women’s representation in politics. To date, Israel is far from being at the forefront of achieving gender balance in political assemblies.

The international community now recommends that several measures be taken to promote a more balanced representation of men and women in decision-making bodies. This shift in equality policy toward affirmative action policies is supported by the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and by the UN World Conferences for Women. These documents have been important for policies in this area, nationally and internationally, and for supporting the legitimacy of the demands for gender balance in politics put forward by women’s organizations.

In Israel, this issue, like many other issues, remains an empty election promise that dissipates and falls to the bottom of the list of national priorities. Too many lists of candidates, with men at the head of a party choosing other men to serve with them. We have the power to change this reality. For 20 years, attempts have been made to submit bills aimed at raising the number of women in the Knesset, the national government, the local authorities, and other public bodies. Most of the proposals have been ground to a halt because, in 21st century Israel, the two stable parties — Shas and United Torah Judaism — not only have never integrated women, but have also prevented the coalition from making any attempt to lead change on the issue.

According to a position paper of the Knesset Research Center, for gender quotas to be effective and achieve their goal of raising the number of women in parliament, clear rules must be set, for example: set numerical targets that, if not met, will disqualify a party. A sharp mechanism for execution must be established. One possibility is the zipper model, in which the list of candidates’ places men and women alternately. Additionally, there needs to be an obligation to have both sexes represented in the real top 10 of each party.

In 2015, I had the privilege to work on gender quotas when former MK Ifat Kariv and I managed to amend the Local Authorities Law. The law is intended to increase female representation in local politics by providing an economic incentive to include women. The amendment stipulated that factions in local authorities, at least a third of whose members were women, would receive increased funding. The change began in the last municipal election. The numbers are still too low, but change has begun.

The formal Israeli political establishment has done little to remove the barriers to women’s participation and advancement in the political world, leading to limited representation of women. Furthermore, the powerful religious institutions and parties remain virtually unchanged in their attitudes/platforms/female representation. These obvious defects notwithstanding, there has been significant change and progress in Israel over the last two decades.

Awareness of the absence of gender equality has taken root in many circles in Israeli society. New areas of work have opened to women, and more women have entered the work force and even public life. The army has begun to permit women to join certain combat roles, and the nature of women’s military service is constantly changing. This change itself is the result of feminist parliamentary activity that has, additionally, produced significant new legislation. Along with the fact that important legal decisions have been rendered, there does seem to be some light at the end of the tunnel.

Regarding Israeli society, these are clear trends in a positive direction. The reasons for these trends are numerous and varied, including the influx of outside influences and ideas through the media and through globalization in general; the efforts of the women’s movements in Israel itself; the development of participatory democracy and civil society in the country; the demands of modern technology; the expansion of higher education of women. It is difficult to believe that all these will not eventually result in a corresponding change in parliamentary representation as well.

About the Author
Dr. Aliza Lavie served as a member of the Knesset for Yesh Atid between 2013 and 2019, serving as chair of the Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality. She is a senior lecturer at the School of Communication at Bar-Ilan University.
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