Monday, December 1, 2008

Israeli Businesswomen's Conference

Yesterday I attended a conference for business women organized by the Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development, and Jasmine, the Association of Businesswomen in Israel. This event was also supported by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, the Hadassah Foundation and the UJA Foundation of New York.

Personally, as a female professional, I have never experienced discrimination or felt disadvantaged. Perhaps this is because translating is one of the professions that utilizes what are considered "female" abilities - verbal and linguistic skills. However, it is undeniable that Israeli society displays some sexist tendencies, partly because it is such a family-oriented society, partly due to the large traditional populations, and also because military service is still highly valued.

Only yesterday, Israel's Minister of Science, Culture and Sports, MK Rajeb Majadele, said "the woman's role should be to build a good family, to be an aide to her husband and to stand by him". This is a reflection of the sort of traditional attitude common among Israel's Arab population, and also among some religious Jews.

About 400 businesswomen from all over Israel attended the conference at the Dan Carmel hotel. Among the prominent lecturers were Ofra Strauss, Chair of Strauss-Elite, Israel's second largest food company. She spoke about the barriers to women's careers: normative, economic, parenting, internal and military. She discussed the need for companies to adopt policies and attitudes of diversity and inclusion. She was then "crowned" as President of Jasmine, with a floral wreath.

This was followed by a lecture on the psychology of success by business coach Ashraf Kurtam. Then, Dr. Ahmed Athamena presented the results of a study of the health of Jews and Arabs, which found that Arab women had more health problems than any other group, including high rates of diabetes and cardio-vascular disease. This was related to their low level of educational achievement, low rate of employment, unhealthy nutrition, lack of exercise, and depression. The findings demonstrated the importance of education and a career to women's health. Then Tiba Herschman presented the results of surveys about stereotypes regarding working women. About a third of the population still believe that women who work are harming their families. This attitude will have to change before employment equality can be achieved.

After lunch, we heard MK Nadia Hilou, who spoke about the double barrier facing Arab women - both gender and coming from a minority. Thus, Arab women seeking employment are held back first by their own society's traiditonal attitudes and later by the discrimination against Arabs in Israeli society. However, there seems to be some progress, with half of the Arab university students in Israel now being female (as is very obvious on the campus of the University of Haifa, for example). MK Hilou went on to list the legislation she has supported, aimed at lengthening maternity leave and having child-care expenses considered a tax-deductible expense. As she said, it seems ridiculous that the ink you buy for your printer is recognized as a tax-deductible expense, but the child-care that enables mothers to work is not. MK Hilou was in many ways the most impressive speaker, and presented a well-balanced view of women and society.

Then there was a panel about successful women, presented by Dr. Esther Herzog of Beit Berl College. First we heard from Mas Watad, who at the age of 23 established a chain of weight-watching programs for the Arab sector, and has invented a new method of measuring the nutritional values of food. Then I was pleased to hear Iman Zuebi, owner of the Al-Mutran guest house in Nazareth, which I visited about a month ago. Finally, Ayah Shachar from Sano, Israel's largest household cleaning products manufacturer, spoke about being the third generation in a family business.

There was a good atmosphere at the conference, and many participants managed to make business contacts. However, there was less interaction than I would have wanted between the Jewish and Arab participants, and I wonder if some of the Arab businesswomen found it difficult to communicate in Hebrew (or maybe they were just shy...), while the Jewish businesswomen many not have thought of the potential benefits of making contacts in the Arab sector.

Unfortunately, several speakers cancelled their participation at the last minute. While they may all have had good reasons for this, the feeling the audience got was that perhaps they didn't consider the event important enough to come "all the way to Haifa" for. My intention is not to "name and shame" them, but since their participation was planned, published and then cancelled, I see no harm in listing them here (if any reader knows why they cancelled and wishes to comment, feel free to do so): journalist Smadar Peled; journalist Orli Vilanai; Chair of the Second Authority for Television and Radio, Nurit Dabush; MK Amira Dotan; marketing expert Yafit Greenberg; and businesswoman and current political candidate, Pnina Rosenblum.

Update (December 15): Here's an article about this conference on their website.

No comments: