Study: Israeli women managers balance careers, family

JERUSALEM — Kids or career? For the successful Israeli working woman, there seems to be one answer: Both. Their conditions might not be as favorable, but Israeli women managers refuse to sacrifice family for career and nonetheless suffer from less burnout than their American counterparts.

In fact, according to Hagit Yerushalmi, who wrote an award-winning master's thesis on "Women in Management," almost all Israeli women senior managers married and had children while climbing the corporate ladder, unlike their American peers who remained either unmarried or childless until their careers were established or even beyond.

For her thesis, Yerushalmi received the L'Oreal-Recanati Prize for Research on Women in Management from L'Oreal and Tel Aviv University's School of Business Administration.

The study also offers explanations as to why there are so few Israeli women in senior management positions and suggests ways of correcting this situation.

For Yerushalmi, who is today CEO of Mashkar Ltd., a subsidiary of Coca-Cola Israel and the country's leading vending machine company, the choice of the topic was a natural.

The Kfar Sava native was at the time on leave from her job as chief economist of Coca-Cola Israel to attend a special one-year MBA program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for mid-career executives.

"I chose the subject of Israeli women in management because of personal interest," Yerushalmi explains. "Being a woman and a mother and having a career in a company where all the senior managers are men, as well as having my own way of dealing with a business world that is primarily male, inspired me to examine how other women deal with these problems."

Rather than concentrating on her own story as a woman manager for the interview, however, Yerushalmi preferred to focus on her thesis.

Building upon previous research, while adding findings of her own based upon in-depth interviews with four senior Israeli women managers, Yerushalmi presents an interesting picture of the Israeli woman at the top.

Of the four women interviewed, who ranged in age from the late 30s to the late 50s, three chose not to reveal their names. Only Ronit Silon, general manager of Olivex Ltd. and chair of the Forum of Women Managers of the Israeli Manufacturers Association, as well as chair of the board of the Bank of Agriculture, opted to be identified.

The other three include the general manager of a family-owned company, the general manager of one of the largest investment companies in Israel and chair of the board of directors of the country's fourth-largest company, and the founder of a consultant firm.

All four were born here with parents or grandparents who emigrated from Eastern Europe. The interviews took place in January 1999.

One of Yerushalmi's more interesting findings concerns the career vs. family challenge. "It is generally perceived that women have to sacrifice their personal lives to succeed," Yerushalmi says. "This perception prevents many women from even entering highly demanding jobs. Israeli women managers put the lie to this perception."

Israeli women managers tend to marry young and have their children while still climbing the corporate ladder, unlike their American counterparts who are either unmarried or without children, at least until they have established themselves professionally.

Yerushalmi attributes this to the importance of children in Israeli society and to explicit government policies dealing with family.

"Israel differs from the U.S. both institutionally and ideologically concerning family roles," she notes: "In the U.S., families and children are in the private domain. The choice whether to have children or not is entirely personal and is neither encouraged nor discouraged. Therefore, receiving any kind of government help in this context is viewed as a sign of personal failure.

"In Israel, the issue is anchored in a different set of cultural assumptions. Children are viewed as essential for the continuing success of society. The social pressure to have children is much greater.

"Plus, the social infrastructure provides health care and other basic family needs independent of employment status. There is paid parental leave mandated by law after the birth of a child. It is illegal to fire a woman during her maternity leave. A parent is permitted to be absent from work due to a child's illness for up to six days a year. Nursing mothers are entitled to be absent from work for one hour a day for four months from the end of maternity leave.

"If society encourages families to have children, then it is easier for the working woman to do so."

But this doesn't do away with the guilt and regret that many working mothers, especially women managers who have to devote tremendous time to their jobs, often feel. Two of Yerushalmi's interviewees expressed guilt feelings about juggling career and family, while the other two were at peace with how they balance work and home.

"I spent too many hours at work and too little time with the children when they were little," said one. "This is something I still haven't come to terms with."

One manager's teenage daughter who resented the time her mother spent working would tell her, "Why are you doing this? Do you think anyone appreciates your work?"

All the women have husbands who, while not necessarily taking up the slack in housework, do provide very needed emotional support and encouragement of their wives' careers.

Another interesting point is that Israeli women managers suffer from far less burnout than women in the United States. A surprising explanation for this centers around Israel's stressful security situation.

Constant stress of this kind causes Israelis to feel that their lives are meaningful and to keep things in proportion. In addition, Israel is a small country in which people tend to have deeper and more stable relationships. They live closer to family and maintain friendships established in childhood, whereas U.S. workers tend to be highly mobile, moving away from family and old friends.

"I have friends whom I know from nursery school," Yerushalmi admits. "And this is not at all uncommon here. Long-term relationships and family protect Israelis against stress and support them in times of crisis."

Israelis also cope with stress differently than people in the U.S. "Israelis talk. They yell. They let their stress out," Yerushalmi says. "American women, on the other hand, turn the pressure inward. They often turn to inactive and/or indirect coping strategies such as alcohol, pills or drugs; sometimes they have mental breakdowns."

In constructing a portrait of the Israeli senior woman manager, Yerushalmi found that all the women interviewed enjoy their positions. They are all achievement oriented and work to attain self-realization. They all plan well, setting long-term goals, and work very hard, not taking their positions for granted. As children, their parents urged them to excel.

All four were daughters of mothers who were not career-oriented, even if they worked, and chose to identify closely with their fathers. And all four experienced the death of a family member at a young age.

Yerushalmi also looks at the problems women managers face in career advancement. First, they suffer from not being connected to the "old boys network." In Israel, this is very often tied in with army service. Since the position of women in the Israel Defense Force is inferior to that of men in terms of jobs and promotions, women do, which achieve the same kinds of networks that men do that help men to advance in civilian life.

Job expectations are different among women and men managers. Women view their careers as sources of self- fulfillment and development. Men view theirs as a way to move up the ladder. Therefore, men expect to have jobs with increasing status and earnings.

Women also bear the burden of balancing career and family, that is, of carrying two full-time jobs. They often feel guilty about compromising the two.

And women suffer from the absence of female role models in business management. Women in management tend to become invisible. They are either ignored by their male colleagues, or contribute to their own invisibility by dressing and acting in a way so as not to draw attention to their sex.

As to why there is a lack of women in top management positions, Yerushalmi points out that studies have shown that there are "gender schemes" which affect expectations of men and women and how their work and performance as individuals are evaluated.

Men in top roles are consistently overrated, while women in the same positions are underrated.

"Today it is evident that glass ceilings and walls exist throughout most workplaces for women," Yerushalmi says. "Therefore, if women want to erase the invisible minus mark that accompanies their professional career, they have to work harder."

One of the interviewees puts it this way: "If a man is appointed and fails, everyone will say, 'He made a mistake.' If the same thing happens to a woman, people will say, 'Why did we appoint a woman?' Appointing a woman is perceived as taking a greater risk. This is the glass ceiling."