Identifying Gender Barriers in the IDF

I recently read several articles on how women have successfully been integrated into Israel’s military. The IDF touts itself as the only western democracy with full inclusion of women into its ranks, serving in both combat and non-combat roles. While it’s true that women have become more prevalent in certain areas and that combat units have been established for women, there still exists tremendous inequality between the opportunities afforded to conscripted men and women. Both legislatively and culturally, the current format of military inclusion stifles the female empowerment process. If Israel’s military is really one of the most progressive in the world, it should start trying to meet its own sterling reputation by further degendering the IDF.

Surprisingly, little research has been done on the military’s social/psychological impact on women. In fact only two academics, Anne Bloom and Yuval Davis, have done extensive research on this important subject. Initially, inequitable conscription was simply a compromise between religious parties that didn’t want women to serve and the secular parties that did. In the status quo, 80% of men serve compared to only 60% of women. Women must finish a minimum of eight years of education to be eligible to serve in the army while men have no such educational requirement. This double standard reinforces the social handicap stigma.

Just over a thousand women enter into to combat positions in the IDF every year. This may seem like a lot, but in reality it is a small fraction of the women in the IDF. When focusing on the non-combat serving majority, women make up a startling 92% of the army’s secretaries and clerical workers. Very often these women are vastly overqualified for their positions. According to research done in 2007 by Orna Levy, women in these low-level positions exhibit extreme disillusionment towards the army, and in many cases, even the state. To these women, service in the military isn’t something that fosters national identity and pride but rather estranges them from society. As early as grade school, the Yom Hakheilot (an IDF informational day in high schools) separates young girls and boys when talking about the army. Studies show that women’s interest for serving in the IDF is not for civic duty or a more dynamic role in society, but more about intrinsic motivation like “meeting new people”, or “doing something interesting”.

The most blatant evidence that degendering is necessary can be seen in the role of an IDF secretary. This position demands absolute loyalty to a male superior, undefined boundaries of obligation, and typically, domestic tasks like getting coffee and cleaning the office. These women cannot advance in the army individually, but rather only if their superior does. They are absolutely dependent on the men that they serve. The fact that women are placed into almost all secretarial and clerical jobs in the army cements classic stigmas of female dependence. We must also consider how these secretaries feel. When surveyed, only 1% of female respondents felt like they worked a normal, productive day. The rest of the respondents felt they were either overworked or underworked. Either type of workday creates the image of female soldiers serving as cheap, unskilled labor. Most disturbing is the rate of sexual assault. In 2013, it was reported that one in eight women in the IDF are sexually harassed.

So while true that women serve in the IDF, even sometimes alongside their male counterparts, it’s important to recognize that in reality, IDF female conscription as it currently stands, actually has a negative impact on female empowerment and self worth.

What makes the military such a barrier for women in society is how it permeates into other aspects of the state. As Professor Galia Golan once wrote, the majority of available positions to new female draftees are “reinforcing and perpetuating the stereotypical role of women as subordinate, subservient and superfluous.”

The effects of the institution ripple into the workforce, home life, politics, and most other places where men and women interact in society. Women’s access to higher position within the army becomes more difficult if not impossible.

In a country where security is critical, it is a tremendously arduous task to achieve high or important governmental positions without having successfully achieved notoriety in the military. Since gender has an impact on one’s possibility to achieve leadership in the army, it inherently has an impact on one’s access to leadership in political fields which, ironically, are the exact positions needed to change the status quo.

Reforms should be undertaken to curb these power structures. Throughout its history, the IDF has served to educate the large influx of various immigrant groups in the Hebrew language and Israeli culture. Today, however, it serves a broader function for more general education. It seems altogether fitting that the IDF contribute to breaking down gender barriers that it has helped to create. Education corps programs can be created to foster female leadership and empowerment. Shanat Sherut (civic service) programs that allow female cadets to shadow prominent female politicians or government administrators should be created. We can also push for legislation that allows for no more than 60% of secretaries and clerical workers to be women. While we brag about female integration into the military, in the long term our society only further entrenches stereotypical power norms.

I’m proud that the IDF is one of the most advanced armies in terms of women’s rights. However, we need to acknowledge and learn to combat the general negative impact current conscription has on the Israeli female. Given our current political climate, the army will continue to be an omnipresent fixture in our society, and the women who serve should be given every opportunity afforded their fellow male soldiers.

About the Author
Aaron Balshan is an Intelligence Analyst for the Levantine Group, a Middle-East based geopolitical risk and research consultancy firm. He is a former Argov Fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center of Herzliya and staff sergeant in the IDF.