The Representation of Women in Israeli Politics

A Comparative Perspective

Policy Paper 99

A study on women's representation in the Knesset and the Israeli government that includes recommendations for improvement of the situation.

Why is it important that women be represented in the Knesset and government? Do we expect women who are elected to these institutions to promote "women's interests" more than men do? What factors influence women's representation in Israeli politics? How has the representation of women changed over the years? And are quotas of different kinds a good idea?

Written by researchers in IDI's Political Reform project, this policy paper examines women's representation in Israeli politics from a comparative perspective. Its premise is that women's representation in politics, and especially in parliaments, carries great importance since it is goes hand and hand with liberal, democratic values. While there has been significant improvement in women's representation in Israeli politics over the years, Israel's standing on this issue offers little cause for celebration. The study before us looks at the effect of this situation on the status of women and on gender equality in Israeli society, and recommends ways of improving women's representation in Israeli politics.

This policy paper was written as part of IDI's Political Reform project, headed by Prof. Gideon Rahat.

For the past decade, the issue of women's representation in the political arena has taken center stage in academia and in public discourse. Underpinning the debate is the normative assumption that women's representation in politics, and parliaments in particular, carries great importance: it is consistent with the values of equality and representativeness, grants legitimacy to the democratic-liberal regime, and helps to impart a view of women as citizens on equal standing with men.

Some would argue that women's parliamentary activity is essentially different from that of men, in part because women parliamentarians tend to deal with issues related to the status of women in society and to promote women's interests to a greater extent than do their male counterparts.

According to this thesis, "descriptive representation," meaning a high proportion of women in parliament, is a precondition for "substantive representation," that is, advancing the interests and viewpoints shared by women. From a historical perspective, though there has been a genuine improvement in women's parliamentary representation in many countries in recent decades, in most cases it is still insufficient. This situation has led countries and parties that are aware of the importance of this representation to implement institutional measures aimed at improving women's representation in the political arena.

This policy paper is an effort to join this important debate. To this end, it examines women's representation in politics, and the factors affecting it, over the years, compares women's representation in Israel with that in other countries, and analyzes how descriptive representation of women in the Knesset influences their substantive representation. The study also assesses the institutional mechanisms adopted in Israel to enhance women's representation in the Knesset, and proposes strengthening and supplementing the existing measures.

Women's Representation in Politics: A Comparative Overview

An examination of women's descriptive representation in the Knesset and Cabinet shows a genuine upward trend over the last twenty years. In the elections for the 19th Knesset (2013), a record 27 women were elected. There are four women ministers in the Cabinet at present, also an all-time high, and three Knesset lists—Labor, Meretz, and Hatnua—are headed by women. Moreover, contrary to past years, and to the standard claim in the literature, women's representation in Israel's left-wing parties over the past decade has not outstripped their representation on the right.

Nonetheless, even after the 2013 elections, women's representation in Israeli politics is far from satisfactory: the proportion of women in the population is 51%; yet only 22.5% of Knesset members and 18% of Cabinet ministers are women. What is more, women are excluded from many parties, in particular the ultra-Orthodox and Arab factions. Israel's situation is dismal in this regard in comparison with other countries as well: as of March 2013, Israel ranks 64th in the world in the percentage of women in parliament, and places 20th among the 34 OECD states.

Representation of Women's Interests and Issues in the 17th and 18th Knessets

The association between the descriptive and the substantive representation of women is among the most interesting connections in the field of political and gender studies. To understand its nature, we examined whether there are differences in patterns of parliamentary activity between male and female parliamentarians. In other words, do women concern themselves more than men with matters categorized in the literature as "women's issues" (for example, education, health, and children and family, along with subjects traditionally associated with women, such as maternity leave and battered women's shelters). And if so, why? In keeping with the professional literature in the field—which is not unequivocal but does clearly favor a certain perspective—we theorized that male and female parliamentarians in Israel are distinguished from one another in their patterns of parliamentary activity, and that women legislators engage, more than men, in issues whose purpose is advancing the status of women in society.

To obtain as comprehensive a picture as possible of the patterns of parliamentary activity among women members of Knesset (MKs), we looked at three major spheres of activity: legislation, parliamentary committees, and parliamentary questions. We selected these subjects since, in our opinion, they faithfully reflect the key areas of involvement of male and female MKs. The findings indicate that women are in fact more involved than men in areas considered "women's issues." This finding holds true for all indices examined in this study. However, despite the differences in patterns of activity between male and female MKs, it is important to note that we are not speaking of a binary division between the sexes, and that on many subjects—for example, education, health, and social welfare—men and women MKs are involved to a similar extent.

Two areas were identified in the study as fields that women MKs, more than their male colleagues, definitely engage in: so-called women's issues, and children and family concerns. This leads us to two primary conclusions: first, in these particular areas a rather patriarchal attitude has been retained among both male and female parliamentarians whereby women bear the major responsibility for the home, for child-rearing, and for running the family; and second, it is the women MKs who are most concerned with advancing gender equality and the status of women in Israel society. The latter conclusion offers a major normative justification for increasing the parliamentary representation of women. The question, then, is how to accomplish this goal.

How Can Women's Representation in the Knesset be Improved?

The research literature enumerates a range of factors affecting women's parliamentary representation. Many of these are social-cultural factors that are difficult to change, certainly in the short term—political culture, religious attitudes, women's education, and their participation in the work force, to name a few. But coupled with these are institutional factors, which can be altered by means of the right reforms. Some of these institutional factors relate to the electoral system; but in the case of Israel it is difficult to implement reforms in this area that would help advance the representation of women in the Knesset since the nature of the current system—proportional representation-list (electoral) system and one large electoral district (of 120 representatives)—already eases the way, in theory, for women to get elected to the Knesset.

Another institutional feature, which actually makes it harder for women to be elected to the Knesset, is the size of Israel's parliament—or more correctly, its lack of size. Israel's legislature is one of the smallest parliaments in the world, relative to the number of citizens. The notion that a small parliament has a negative impact on women's representation is based on the assumption that women generally have fewer political assets (financial resources, media exposure, ties with interest groups and political elites, and the like) than do men; consequently, most women are placed in low slots on their party's list. For this reason, enlarging the Knesset is expected to increase not only the number of women representatives but also their proportion of the total.

To test this theory, we examined how women's representation would change if the number of MKs rose to 180. The findings indicate that such an increase would moderately improve the proportion of women in the Knesset: in the 17th Knesset, their share would have risen by 2.5%; and in the 18th Knesset, by 1.4%. In absolute numbers, the change can be seen as more significant, namely, an addition of 13 women MKs in each of these two Knessets.

Another institutional mechanism that countries can adopt to increase women's parliamentary presence is quotas for representation of women. The use of such quotas began in the 1970s and is becoming more widespread; some even consider it to be the most important electoral reform of recent years. It is customary to distinguish between three types of quotas:

In the first type—reserved seats—the law stipulates that a certain number or percentage of parliamentary seats will be allocated exclusively to women. But this type of quota is only typical of non-democratic countries.

By contrast, the second type—legislative quotas—is common in many democracies, primarily Catholic countries in Western Europe or Latin America, for example: Spain, Portugal, Belgium, France, Ireland, Poland, Slovenia, and Costa Rica. These quotas are based on laws stating that each party running in an election must guarantee that a specific number or proportion—generally one third to one half—of its candidates consist of women. In certain countries, the law also mandates that women be placed in specific slots (in the case of elections based on party lists). In some countries, parties that do not meet these requirements are disqualified, and in others, a portion of the parties' funding is withheld.

The third type—voluntary party quotas—is the most common system in democratic countries, including many of the countries that have adopted legislative quotas, as well as the Protestant democracies of northwestern Europe (Germany, Norway, and Sweden). It refers to an obligation that the party takes upon itself—willingly and on its own initiative—to adopt representation quotas for women. In other words, the party adopts provisos by which it determines the proportion and position of women on the party list. The usual quotas in established democracies range between 20% and 50%.

Although the use of representation quotas—whether voluntary or mandated by law—has been harshly criticized at times by scholars and politicians, in our view it is an effective, normatively justified means of improving women's parliamentary representation. Voluntary and legislated representation quotas appear to be particularly effective and reasonable in countries such as Israel, where the status of women in society is already quite established (in most sectors of the population) but their representation in parliament is still low. In these countries, quotas are likely to contribute both to women's parliamentary representation and to further improvement in the overall status of women in society.

But even in these countries, quotas (both voluntary and legislated) are liable to fall short of their goal. To prevent this from happening, the regulations and procedures relating to quotas must be difficult for parties to circumvent. Rules must therefore be put in place governing not only the percentage of women on a party list but also their share of realistic slots, including the highest positions. Likewise, sanctions imposed for non-compliance with a legally mandated quota should have deterrent value. To avoid a situation where women end up competing only for the slots allocated to them under the quota system—which would effectively "freeze" the proportion of women in parliament—one of three types of quotas should be adopted: high quotas, gradually increasing quotas, or quotas intended solely for new women candidates. In order to counteract arguments against quotas on normative grounds as undermining competition and principles of equality between candidates, the quotas should be only temporary, to be eliminated as soon as the desired representation of women in parliament is achieved. Finally, establishing a provision whereby parties that do not meet the quota requirements can run in elections and sit in parliament, but with greatly reduced funding, could strengthen the normative justification for legislated party representation quotas and the chances of their adoption.

Recommendations: Adoption of Quotas for Women's Representation

Based on these principles, we have formulated two key recommendations for women's representation quotas:

  1. Voluntary party representation quotas – These quotas have been common in many Israeli parties since the 1990s. In the elections for the 19th Knesset, five parties (of those who crossed the electoral threshold) implemented quotas, though the percentage set by three of them was rather low (20% or less). Higher quota levels, as practiced in many democracies, were adopted only by the Balad and Meretz parties (33% and 40%, respectively). As a result, quotas did not contribute greatly to enhancing women's representation in the Knesset.    

    We recommend that all parties in Israel adopt voluntary party representation quotas under which the party's Knesset list would contain no less than 40% of candidates from each gender. More precisely, we propose that at least two candidates of each gender be included in each successive group of five candidates (1–5, 6–10, and so on). Further, it should be established at the outset that the quotas will be abolished if they are not applied in two consecutive elections ("not applied" refers to situations where there is no need to "bump" women up the list). In parties where the share of women is low at present, we recommend raising the quota gradually.

  2. Legislative quotas – Over the past two decades, more than 20 private members' bills advocating Legislative quotas have been brought before the Knesset. Some of them called for barring parties that did not meet the mandated quotas from running in elections, while others endorsed financial incentives for parties that filled the representation quotas. None of these bills passed.

    We recommend amending the Party Funding Law of 1973 to provide additional party funding to factions that meet the quotas. In the opinion of the Knesset's legal advisors, enacting this bill would require an absolute majority of 61 MKs, since it conflicts with the principle of equality as detailed in section 4 of the Basic Law: The Knesset. For a faction to qualify for additional party funding, its list of candidates should include:

    • At least 3 candidates of each gender in every consecutive group of 10 (1–10, 11–20, and so on
    • At least 30% of candidates from each gender in realistic slots, that is, the number of seats that the faction won in the pervious election
    • At least one candidate of each gender in the top five slots

    For every candidate elected to the Knesset from the less-represented gender, the party would receive one additional unit of funding for its campaign expenditures—a significant incentive.

    According to this proposal, in the 19th Knesset, Meretz would have increased its campaign funding by 55% over the present level, and the Yesh Atid party, by 40%. As with the voluntary representation quotas, here too we recommend that the proposed amendment to the Party Funding Law be nullified if there are at least 40% of MKs from each gender (on the date the Knesset is installed) for two consecutive Knessets.

Implementation of these recommendations is expected to greatly improve the representation of women in the Knesset. And based on examples from numerous established democracies, it is achievable. According to our study, the proposed measures would make a normative contribution to bolstering Israel's liberal-democratic regime and truly advancing the status of women in Israeli society.

Assaf Shapira, a researcher conducting research as part of IDI's Political Reform project, is a doctoral student in the Political Science Department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Dr. Ofer Kenig heads the political parties research group of IDI’s Political Reform project, and is a senior lecturer at the Ashkelon Academic College.

Dr. Chen Friedberg heads the Knesset and electoral system research group of IDI’s Political Reform project, and lectures at the Department of Israel and Middle Eastern Studies of Ariel University in Samaria.

Reut Itzkovitch-Malka, a researcher condcuting research as part of IDI’s Political Reform project, is a doctoral student in the Political Science Department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.