The Inexcusable Absence of Women in Israeli Ministry Leadership Roles

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Minister of the Economy Barkat's decision to remove Adv. Michal Cohen from her role as Director of the Competition Authority compounds a two-pronged problem. On the one hand, the diminishing number of women in Ministry leadership roles, and on the other, increased political interference in professional authorities, risking their independence and professional standards.

Adv. Michal Cohen speaking at the Knesset. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

Minister of Economy Nir Barkat has recently decided to remove the Director of the Competition Authority, Adv. Michal Cohen. Cohen, according to the minister (as reported in the media), takes a "passive, compromising line, clearly unprofessional and disconnected from reality."

Such dismissal, however, is part of a pattern that undermines the principles of independent government authorities, without any concrete cause for termination. In his move for dismissal, Minister of Economy Barkat is joining forces with Minister of Communications Shlomo Karhi and Minister in the Ministry of Justice David Amsalem, who are working to fire the Chairman of the Postal Authority, Mishael Vaknin. The common thread among the ministers is the perception that their authority enables them to dismiss any employee at will, including the heads of professional authorities, even though they are fulfilling their duties legally. As with the Postal Authority, the Competition Authority is a government authority charged with maintaining the principles of competitiveness in the Israeli economy and is given the independence to act by professional standards. Dismissal is an extreme measure reserved for the most exceptional cases; however, there is no evidence of any such exceptional case here. This is also evident from the letter of the former Competition Authority heads to the Minister of Economy, in which they expressed deep concern and opposition to the potential damage to the authority's independence that could occur due to the dismissal of the head of the authority. Hopefully, the dismissal attempt will be stopped by the search committee, that has the authority to approve it. However, even if stopped, the blow to the independence of the head of the authority is still hard.

Along with the potential damage to the civil service sector in general and the Competition Authority in particular, it cannot be ignored that Cohen's is an attempt to dismiss yet another female director, one of the few women who remain among the senior ranks of the public service. Cohen thus joins Michal Rosenbaum, the resigned director of the Government Companies Authority, against whom Minister Amsalem waged a persistent battle, as well as the former director of the Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women, Ayelet Razin Beit-Or, who, upon her appointment, the then Minister for the Advancement of Women and now Minister for Social Equality, Mai Golan, showed her the door. This trend of removing the few women in the senior public ranks is compounded by the fact that the 37th government, at the beginning of its term, removed all female directors general serving in government ministries from their positions (in 2022 there were 10 female directors out of 27 government ministries), without appointing a single woman in their place. Although two female directors were appointed during the past year, the two ministries that they headed have since been closed.  

Indeed, we have just been informed of the Minister of Communications' intention to appoint a female Director General to his ministry. This intention is welcome; however, even if this appointment is approved, it does not necessarily indicate a significant change in the trend of drastic reduction of the number of women in senior positions.

This is evident from recent reports, according to which the Civil Service Commission rejected a request by Michal Halperin, a member of the search committee for the position of Director General of the Ministry of Energy, to try to find more female candidates. In other words, not only are the majority of ministers not committed to gender equality (and sometimes even opposed), but the relevant professional body on the subject, which is supposed to be committed to adequate representation of women under the Women's Equal Rights Law of Israel, distances itself from the obligation to consider female candidates relevant to the position.

Beyond the fundamentally unequal and undemocratic nature of excluding women—who make up half of the population—from key leadership roles, female representation in top public service positions has never been more important than in a time of war. War has a significant impact on women, who heroically serve in the security forces, or whose partners are called up to reserve duty. In such cases, women are often left to bear the burden of childcare, household and financial management, healthcare, education, and more on their own. This is to say nothing of the well-documented, horrific gender-based violence that characterized Hamas' October 7 massacre, and that is perpetrated against the hostages, likely to this day. Such realities exacerbate the urgency of rectifying the absence—or arguably intentional exclusion—of women in key positions in government ministries.

Gender equality is more distant than ever in Israel, and the remaining women in key leadership positions are subject to the whims of politicians. All Israelis suffer the consequences: the civil service, women, citizens of the state, and, most importantly, Israeli democracy.


This article was published in the Jerusalem Post