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  • Ofer Setty

Women’s employment rate has risen, gender equality remains

Public discourse frequently addresses the fact that men earn more money and work more hours than women. However, it doesn’t tend to address the role of the labor market structure and how, in most cases, it leads women to compromise their careers and men to dedicate themselves to their work.

After summer vacation and holiday breaks are over, children return to their routine and parents can return to thinking about their careers. But how do mothers’ careers in Israel look as compared to those of fathers?

Let me start by sharing some data: In recent decades, there has been a significant increase in women’s employment rates. Between 1995 and 2017, the percentage of non-ultra-Orthodox Jewish women between 25-64 years old in the labor force (i.e., working or looking for work) increased from 64% to 82%. During this time, men’s employment rate increased from 82% to 88%. Within 22 years, women have just about caught up with men in their rates of employment.

There is no doubt that this reflects an impressive trend and yet, it should be taken with a grain of salt: There is still a big difference between the work experiences of women and men. According to data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) in 2019, women in Israel work about eight hours less per week than men on average (37 vs. 45) and receive a lower hourly rate (84 cents for every dollar a man makes). When you combine these two variables, the result is clear: Women earn significantly less than men. Or, more precisely, about 65% of men’s salary over the past decade.

A lively public discourse occurs in regard to this discrepancy and its contributing factors, including perspectives that range from viewing it as a matter of choice to discrimination. Another discourse exists surrounding each factor’s contribution to gender inequality in employment. An area that is less frequently addressed is the labor market structure (for example, work hours) and the way in which it supports or restricts movement toward equality. As a starting point, work hours affect not only one’s salary, but also the ability to find a meaningful job and to stand out in one’s position. In general, the more meaningful and rewarding the job, the higher the expectation is to devote more hours to it.

This is exactly the time to share another statistic: In 2017, 62% of non-ultra-Orthodox Jewish men worked 45 hours per week or more, and 37% worked 50 hours or more. How does this statistic relate to the modern household in which both parents desire a meaningful career? After all, it indicates a significant number of working hours, which often comes at the expense of time spent with family or engaging in other activities. When we also add the amount of time that we spend each day on the road (commutes), we often reach a point that we can’t possibly keep up with.

Some families enlist the help of caregivers to deal with this very issue, but not everyone is able to do so or wants this arrangement. And, in any case, working long hours requires making sacrifices which are often reflected in matters related to raising children, the relationship with one’s partner or one’s leisure time. And what about those who do not want to make this sacrifice? The compromise that many families make is that only one spouse will work long hours. If the couple can compromise and alternate between whose career gets more support -- great, but this type of compromise doesn’t match what the data show. Women, whose working hours are reduced to a greater extent, are the ones who compromise in the vast majority of cases. And in numbers: The percentage of women who work 45 hours per week or more is 35% and only 11% work 50 hours or more.

It's important to note though: The man is not necessarily the villain and the woman the victim. There is a system here that isn’t operating in line with the expectations of a modern and egalitarian labor market. In fact, it is not at all obvious that the man is the one who benefits in this scenario (other than in pay of course). A survey conducted in 2019 by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 60% of people are not satisfied with the current degree of balance between their personal lives and their work, and this percentage increases, as expected, as the number of working hours increases.

This reality is not destiny. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the percentage of men in Israel who work 40 hours a week or more is 86% as compared to the OECD average of 75%, ranking Israel in 11th place among the total 38 countries. Reducing the number of working hours is complex, and I will discuss it further at a later date. What is important for our purposes in this post, however, is that the change must stem from the country’s desire to shape the labor market in such a way that will allow for greater gender equality in employment. This type of change can benefit both men and women, and no less important, can improve our level of life satisfaction.



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