Leaning In, Israel-Style
JNS.org – Beyoncé sings, “Who run the world? Girls.”
Indeed, when I was 12 years old, I heard the mom from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” tell her daughter that “the man may be the head of the family, but the woman is the neck, and the neck can turn the head any way she wants.”
And 10 years later, my liberal arts women’s college in southern California had a “naked brunch” with champagne to celebrate our upcoming graduation. The event was exactly what it sounds like. At the brunch (which took place in a walled garden guarded by school security), the class of 2014 danced in our birthday suits on the garden’s pillars to Beyoncé’s song. The whole thing was a kind of middle finger to the patriarchal society we would be going out into after our graduation from the hyper-liberal and female-friendly bubble that was Scripps College.
We were warned about this “real world,” but the world that Scripps warned us about was really an America-centric world. They didn’t warn us that if religion came into the picture, we might be forcibly veiled or silenced. They didn’t tell us that if we moved to a poorer community, it would be a whole other set of circumstances. And they certainly didn’t tell us that if we moved to another country and culture, it could actually be better.
I moved to Jerusalem, a city that has completely different religious, economic, and cultural implications than the Scripps bubble or their conception of the “real world.” Many aspects of Israel are more female-friendly (but some are just as bad as in the US).
I was reminded of this at an event in Jerusalem that discussed whether women should “lean in” to the workplace in order to be heard, as Sheryl Sandberg puts it, or simply accept the inability to have it all, as suggested by Anne-Marie Slaughter, who felt judged when she left a high-profile job for raising a family. The panelists were six women from Israeli women’s groups “Ima Kadima,” “Women in Wireless,” and “Digital Eve Israel.” They discussed where they saw themselves on a scale from Sandberg to Slaughter, regarding their professions, motherhood, and gender.
Many panelists maintained that Israel is better for women who choose to be mothers, as Israel is a very child- and mother-friendly society. In addition to the institutional benefits, such as subsidized schooling, paternity allowance, three-month paid maternity leave (with the option for another three), and health care for all, there’s a feeling that the family is one of the most important things in life.
On the other hand, in Israel, there are still many barriers for professional women, such as ingrown gender roles. The panelists noted that men are still viewed as the breadwinner, whereas the women are viewed as the homemakers. In order to change this, Aliza Levitt Gilman, a cognitive behavioral therapist in private practice, maintained, “We need to change how we perceive the male role and begin conversations at home.” As a frequent guest at the Levitt-Gilman Shabbat table, I can tell you that this method is working for Aliza and her husband, who both have professional duties in addition to taking part in raising their four children.
Another one of the panelists commented at the beginning of the event, “It’s a pleasure to see women here because there are no women in high-tech.” This notion was underscored by the fact that the very next day, I went to a Microsoft conference in Tel Aviv where I saw very few women; but the women I did see included two of the panelists I had met the previous day. (Also at the event was an Israeli-invented computer application that guessed, based on my projected mood, gender, and age, that I would like Beyoncé.)
The very next business day, I went to a marketing conference, where I saw many more women. There, I saw another one of the panelists.
It was funny to have met five of the panelists for the very first time, only to see three of them again the next couple of days at professional conferences. It shows how few women are truly “out there” in the tech scene, but also how committed these women are to ensuring the female footprint on Israel’s professional world.
After those three days of lectures and conferences, I realized that with all due respect to Beyoncé, women do not run the world…yet. But if Israeli women continue to “lean in” and question gender roles, we may have a good start.
Eliana Rudee is a fellow with the Haym Salomon Center and the author of the “Aliyah Annotated” column for JNS.org. She is a graduate of Scripps College, where she studied international relations and Jewish studies. Her bylines have been featured in USA Today, Forbes, and The Hill. Follow her column on JNS.org.