Simone de Beauvoir famously said that ”One is not born but becomes a woman” (in her book The Sexond Sex (1949). More on that here). She expressed the philosophical claim that the way society relates to you as a person is in fact constructing your gender. I have known this in theory for years, and intellectually agreed with de Beauvoir’s analysis. But I did not know how true it is that I am constantly being defined by society as a gendered individual until I started working in Israel. And let me say up front: I do not like it much. Gendering people can be endangering them and their freedom to equal and fair treatment.
When I grew up in Northern Europe, and while working different jobs as a student in the capital of my old country, I never experienced that my gender was relevant to my employers or co-workers. I was judged on my performance, my experience, my results and my integrity. But no one acted particularly different around different genders. Also back then I was a considering myself a feminist, but what drove me was principles and theories. I did notice, sadly, a lack of female role models in the echelons of the university and academia, as well as the larger cultural institutions I interned in. But on an everyday basis, I was treated like an employee as any other.
Moving to Israel would change all that. This is a deeply patriarchal society, and despite the democratic garments and values rooted in the Knesset, this place still resembles the Middle Eastearn way of life more than Western Europe. As an orthodox Jew, I was also taken aback by the overwhelming conservatism of my newfound rabbis, and how restricting religion (here: National religious Judaism. I cannot speak for the other streams of our religion) was on my rights as a Jew and as a women. I found a small oasis in Kolech but it is not nearly enough to sustain my mental sanity.
And then came: the Workplace. Fine, I thought. My nationality and religious identity are being addressed in a gendered manner all the time (I am a female Israeli and a female Jew to Others, and my access to the conceptual space of Israeliness and Jewishness is here restricted by my gender. In the Old Country, that was never the case). But, I thought in my naïve optimism, surely my professional life will be different. It is not. Having worked in different offices, with Israelis as well as ‘Anglos’, in businesses and NGO’s and non-for-profits, I still feel my gender stepping through the door before my professional performance. For instance, I was paid less than male co-workers and when I realised this and complained, no one was outraged. I got a raise, so my salary matched that of the ‘guys’ and when i asked “why the original difference” I was told in not so many words that ‘this is how it is.’ The way women are spoken and spoken about is part of the problem. The office chat serves as a gender-magnifying glass, making me a women rather than a colleague. Proving de Beauvoir’s theory right on a daily basis.
Ironically, Israel’s law against sexual harassment from 1998 is actually pretty progressive and the MKs should be commended for passing a law of this character. But is has clearly not taken root. What I am addressing here is not physical sexual harassment, but rather the nasty grey zone of ‘verbal culture’ in the office. What is the accepted way of addressing young women? And young men? And why the difference?
I spoke to a female career officer, highly decorated, from the IDF who was part of the group implementing the law in the army. She said that yes, it reflects a way of behavior very far from reality. But that we can’t sit around and wait for society to be ‘ready’ to be gender-neutral. It has to come from the top down. She might be right when it comes to army mentality, but sociologically speaking, social change needs individuals to change.
Recognising that there is a real problem in Israel in how female employees are treated is a first step. But I find that when I speak about this, I am being laughed at. I am too European, too new, too sensitive. Men and women alike have lots of good reasons why the problem is me and my failure to see why a business partner at a meeting calling my “a good looking girl, and smart too!” is acceptable Israeli behavior. I remain convinced that this ‘verbal culture’ is unprofessional and inappropriate. And ultimately unisraeli in a country striving to be a light among the nations. So I remain a gendered and concerned citizen. The irony is that I am absolutely thrilled to be a woman. I just don’t want my rights restricted on that account.