Women in Public Life
by Professor Naomi Chazan

Prof. Naomi Chazan was a Member of Knesset and
Deputy Speaker of the Knesset

1996 (selected data updated 2003)

While some women have been involved in political life since the founding of the first Jewish political institututions at the turn of the century, women in Israel are under-represented in all areas of public life. Despite entrenched myths of equality between men and women, women face a wide gap between the excellent legislation on record and the difficult realities facing those women who choose to pursue a political career.

The Government

Since the establishment of the State of Israel, only ten women have served as cabinet ministers, including Prime Minister Golda Meir. Of the 23 ministers in the present 30th government, three are women – Limor Livnat, Tzipi Livni, and Yehudit Naot.

Women ministers since 1948
Golda Meir (Labor) Prime Minister, Labor, Foreign Affairs
Shoshana Arbeli- Almozlino (Labor) Health
Shulamit Aloni (Labor, Meretz) Without portfolio, Education, Communications, Arts and Sciences
Sarah Doron (Likud) Without portfolio
Ora Namir (Labor) Labor and Social Affairs
Limor Livnat (Likud) Communications; Education; Science, Culture and Sport
Dalia Itzik (Labor) Environment; Industry and Trade; Communications
Yael Tamir (Labor) Immigrant Absorption
Tzipi Livni (Likud) Regional Cooperation; Without portfolio; Agriculture and Rural Development; Immigrant Absorption; Justice
Yehudit Naot (Shinui) Environment

The Knesset

Until the fourteenth Knesset, the number of women MKs remained relatively constant at around eight to ten members, or seven to nine percent of the 120-member house, increasing to 16 and 18 in the 15th and 16th respectively. Women MKs have proposed a high number of bills, have chaired committees, and have served as Deputy Speakers.

In the Likud-led sixteenth Knesset, 13 of the 18 women Knesset Members represent coalition parties, while five represent opposition left-wing parties.

Women in the Knesset play an important part in shaping government responses to a variety of issues, particularly on the domestic front. Notable legislative successes to date include progress in the areas of affirmative action, comparable worth and equal pay legislation, and strict measures in cases of violence against women. In general, women Knesset Members have been less successful in participating in some of the high-stakes issues such as finance and defense.

 Women in Public Life

Number and Percentage of Women in each Knesset
Year Knesset No. of
% of
1949 1 11 9.2
1951 2 11 9.2
1955 3 12 10.0
1959 4 9 7.5
1961 5 10 8.3
1965 6 9 7.5
1969 7 8 6.7
1973 8 10 8.3
1977 9 8 6.7
1981 10 8 6.7
1984 11 10 8.3
1988 12 7 5.8
1992 13 11 9.2
1996 14 9 7.5
2000 15 16 13.4
2003 16 18 15.0

Source: Report to Beijing Conference on Women (1995)

Knesset Committees

For many years, women’s seats on Knesset committees followed a predictable pattern. Until 1984, no women had served on either the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee or the Finance Committee, the two most powerful committees. Women Knesset members instead tended to be assigned to the more domestic and socially-oriented committees.

This pattern is slowly changing. In the thirteenth Knesset, the Education Committee was chaired by a woman, and women sat on the House Committee, the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, the Labor and Welfare Committee, the Immigration and Absorption Committee, the Interior and Environment Committee, the Economics Committee and the War against Drugs Committee.

In the fourteenth Knesset, women chaired three committees: the Immigration and Absorption Committee, the Research and Development Committee, and the Committee on the Status of Women, which is now a statutory committee. Women also serve on the Education Committee, the Interior Committee, the Immigration Committee, the Labor and Welfare Committee and the House Committee.

Leadership Roles within the Knesset

Most of the top positions in the Knesset continue to be assigned to men, but women have made some progress. In the thirteenth Knesset, two women served as Deputy Speakers and one woman chaired a committee. The fourteenth Knesset includes one woman Deputy Speaker as well as the three female committee chairpersons.

The Judiciary

For many years at least one of Israel’s Supreme Court justices has been a woman. At present, three women sit on the Supreme Court and one as State Attorney. Because half of the nation’s magistrate courts’ and district courts’ judges are women, more are likely to be appointed to the Supreme Court in the future.

Local Government


Since the founding of the State, only five women have served as mayors of municipalities. One of the five was a Christian Arab.

In 1975, a reform in local government laws designated the position of mayor as the only directly elected political office (until 1995, when the position of Prime Minister also became subject to direct election). As a result, the position of mayor gained prestige, competition increased among male candidates and fewer women were supported by political parties. Women candidates have had little success in mayoral elections. 29 women ran for mayoral slots in 1989, but only one was elected; 10 women ran in 1993; none were elected. In 1998, Yael German was elected mayor of Herzliya and Miriam Fierberg mayor of Netanya.

Local Councils

The largest increase in women’s political leadership has been in the sphere of local government. While the number of women MKs remained stable from the early days of the state until the year 2000, the number of women participating in local politics has increased systematically. In 1950, 4.2 percent of local representatives were women; by 1978, 5.5%; in 1993, 11%; and in 1998, 15%.

By 1993, 73 percent of local councils included at least one woman member. This figure suggests that political parties consider the inclusion of at least one woman on local councils a political necessity.

One way to increase the number of women in local government is to encourage the councils to accord priority to women’s concerns. To this end, the Center for Local Government has encouraged the establishment of working women’s committees in all Jewish and Arab local councils. Legislation has also been proposed to mandate that every local council include a member of the Women’s Council or an Advisor to the Mayor on the Status of Women, to be funded jointly by the local authority and the Ministry of the Interior.

Political Parties

Many women are involved in political parties, but their numbers tend not to be reflected in party leadership or on party lists for elected office.

Most parties on both sides of the political spectrum comprise a women’s division that encourages women to become politically active, provides means in support of their interests and promotes women’s advancement within the party.

Some of the smaller parties, including those with a religious platform, discourage women from running for office although Emunah, the women’s branch of the National Religious Party, has run independently in local elections and won a seat on several occasions.

Both of the major parties as well as some of the smaller ones have developed internal guidelines for increasing women’s participation. The Labor party has adopted a clause requiring that women fill at least 30 percent of all leadership positions. In the Likud party, at least 20 percent must be women. The left-of-center Meretz party recently adopted the highest standard currently in place: a 40 percent clause.

While these guidelines suggest a commitment to change, the reality both within the parties and on the floor of the Knesset is quite different – particularly since the above guidelines have not yet been applied to party lists for Knesset elections. Among the 34 Labor party members, three are women (nine percent), as are two of the 32 Likud party (six percent). Of the nine Meretz MKs, two are women (22 percent); of the seven MKs of Yisrael Be’aliya, one is a woman (14 percent); and Hadash has one woman among its five MKs (20 percent). The three religious parties, with 23 Knesset seats, have no women members.

In recent years, legislation has been proposed to obligate parties to open their ranks to women, by curtailing government support to parties with less than 25% women candidates.

The Histadrut

Within the Histadrut, the monolithic federation of labor unions in Israel, women are nominally represented at each level. The Histadrut has adopted a resolution declaring that thirty percent of its leadership must be women.

Unlike many other political bodies, the Histadrut has been relatively successful in tapping into the leadership potential of its women members. Nineteen percent of the Executive Committee and 25 percent of its deputy chairpersons are women. In the Histadrut Council, 30 percent of the representatives and 42 percent of the deputy chairpersons are women, as are twenty-two percent of the 1154 delegates to the Histadrut Convention. Among the thirteen department heads of the Executive, two are women and two are secretaries of Workers’ Committees (of the existing 65).

Civil Service and Public Sector

In addition to elected and appointed positions, close to 60 percent of employees in the civil service and the public sector are women. Forty-three percent of all working women are employed in these sectors, as compared to 19.5 percent of working men.

Women work in nearly all areas of the civil service, yet the classic pyramid structure of high representation at the lower levels and minimal representation in the top ranks fully applies. At the lower levels, 92 percent of the positions are filled by women, while some of the top positions include no women at all. At present, the highest ranking women in the civil service are directors-general in the ministries of justice and the environment.

Affirmative action

The first Affirmative Action legislation, which applied only to directors of state corporations, was enacted in 1993, and in 1995 a broad amendment concerning the entire civil service was passed. Through a combination of lobbying by women’s organizations and judicial action, this progressive legislation is now being more broadly interpreted and more widely enforced.

The case of Affirmative Action reflects one clear example of the successful complementary work of women’s advocates in the Knesset and in the non-profit sector. The 1993 amendment to the Corporation Law requires ministers to appoint women as directors of government corporations in which they are under-represented. When the legislation had been in place for a year without notable improvement, the Israel Women’s Network petitioned the High Court of Justice which ruled in its favor and reaffirmed the responsibility of ministers to appoint directors with equal gender representation in mind. The court also stated that temporary measures were needed to countermand discrimination existing in terms of work, wages and representation. As a result, the number of women department heads in government ministries increased to 30 percent in 1995 (from 14% in 1984) and women directors of government corporations increased from about 1.5 percent to 19 percent.


The limited number of women in public life can be attributed, to a large extent, to the political structure itself. The system of proportional representation, which actually encouraged women’s representation in Europe, has not had the same effect in Israel. A great deal of power is granted to the political parties, in which women tend to be under-represented, particularly at the decision-making levels. Also, the absence of majority parties necessitates the establishment of coalitions with smaller parties, to form a government. This tends to strengthen the role of the small religious parties, which are generally opposed to the participation of women in public life. Other small parties, such as the Arab and ethnic parties, have also discouraged participation of women.

Most politicians begin their careers early – often with student politics. After graduation, women are apt to leave the political arena for less demanding careers.

Another path into national politics is through local government, in which, until very recently, women played a very minor role.

A third course is via the army. A large number of high-ranking officers vie for Knesset spots after retiring from a military career. Because of systemic discrimination and job differentiation according to gender, few women rise to high rank. Since the elections to the thirteenth Knesset, a fourth path into national politics has emerged: party primaries. While primaries are more accessible to women, they require three things which women candidates tend not to have in abundance: money, public exposure and organization.

Cultural pressures to marry early and start a family are strong among Israeli women. As a result, many women who are interested in politics sacrifice their own aspirations in the name of marriage and family. For mothers of young children, any type of career, and a political career in particular, is difficult because of the incongruence between the typical schoolday, which ends at 12:30 or 1 p.m., and the workday, which ends several hours later. Like any latecomers to politics, women who begin a political career, or return to politics after their children are grown, find themselves at a significant disadvantage.

Given Israel’s excellent educational opportunities for women, strong legislation and history of women politicians, men and women should be equally represented within the ranks of public leadership. Nevertheless, women have been consistently under-represented in virtually all areas of public life.

The number of women in the Knesset has not increased since the State of Israel was established, although women are now more likely to serve in the leadership roles of committee chairperson and Deputy Speaker.

In the sphere of local government, the number of women representatives has increased slightly, but women candidates have not had much success in mayoral elections.

Many political parties now stipulate a minimum number of women on all party lists, but these requirements are not yet implemented on all levels of party activity.

Sixty percent of public servants are women, but most are concentrated in the lower ranks of the civil service. As the Affirmative Action legislation enacted within the past five years is put into practice, women’s representation in the higher ranks is improving substantially.

Women’s under-representation at all senior levels of involvement and decision-making is self-perpetuating. Where women do not constitute a critical mass, they cannot and do not promote other women.

In addition to legislative change, the work of government bodies, non-government women’s organizations and grassroots activist groups are instrumental in directing and channeling the intellectual power and leadership potential of Israeli women.