Business, professional &real estate | Israel banking on female leaders in the financial sector

Much ado was made in the global banking world when Janet Yellen and Christine Lagarde accepted positions as chair of the Federal Reserve and managing director of the International Monetary Fund, respectively.

Galia Maor

But did you know that there’s a female governor of the Bank of Israel, women heading three of the top five Israeli banks, a female CEO at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and a female director-general of the treasury?

Thanks to a constantly modernizing banking sector, Israel is among the world’s leaders when it comes to women in the financial arena.

“Israel definitely has the world’s most feminized banking sector,” said Amotz Asa-El, Middle East commentator for the Wall Street Journal. “Most CEOs and many mid-level managers are [also] women. There’s no banking tradition; it’s all happening in front of our eyes.”

Israel’s banking industry started out as a family affair/political old boys’ club in its early years. The 1983 bank stock crisis quickly put an end to that and jarred the door open for women in the field.

Karnit Flug, the recently appointed governor of the Bank of Israel, is the newest name on the list.

Days before Flug’s appointment, Lilach Asher-Topilsky became CEO of Discount Bank, Israel’s third-largest bank. She joins Smadar Berber-Tzadik, who heads First International, the fifth-largest bank; and Rakefet Russak-Aminoach, CEO of Israel’s largest bank, Leumi. Not to mention Ester Levanon, outgoing CEO of the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange.

Karnit Flug­

“These are women who are leading in their fields; they are extremely professional,” said Dafna Schwartz, an economic consultant and professor of business administration at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “They chose the right people for the job, not the correct gender.”

Israel’s banking sector got its first key female player after the 1983 financial crisis, when stocks of the country’s four largest banks collapsed. Most of the country’s senior bankers were convicted for breach of trust and insider trading.

Galia Maor, known as the Iron Lady of the Israeli economy, was the trailblazer for Israeli women in the banking sector. As Bank Leumi’s deputy CEO, and then CEO, she helped put the sector back on track. She stepped down in 2012 after 17 years as CEO.

“The men made a big mess back when it was a masculine vocation, and that created a vacuum. It was a circumstance, not an idea, that allowed women in,” said Asa-El, a former business editor at the Jerusalem Post.

Israel’s banking sector is changing but it hardly serves up full equality. Most of the top positions in the treasury, as well as the Bank of Israel, are occupied by men. According to the Catalyst, an organization for women in business, just 7.9 percent of companies traded on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange’s benchmark TA-100 index have female CEOs.

Ronit Kark, senior lecturer at Bar-Ilan University’s department of psychology and a specialist in women and leadership, said Flug’s appointment — which came after a long and embarrassing process — has a “dual message.”

“On the one hand, the way she got in says we’re still not there [in terms of gender equality]. Women, even if they seem most deserving for the job, will have a harder journey attaining that job.

“On the other hand,” Kark continued, “the fact that she was there, that she had the skills and background, and that she negotiated it very well and said ‘I’m leaving if I don’t get the job’ … The way she managed the episode was with a lot of self-worth and power. In that sense, it’s signaling there is some wind of change.”

Indeed, the banking sector has shown that it accepts women as leaders.

“It creates equality, once they’re in,” said Asa-El. “If you’re a customer at a bank where more than half the branch managers are women, it conditions you to accept, very naturally, women as sources of authority where once they were completely absent.”