Why women running banks is the norm in Israel

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Earlier this year, the Israeli public celebrated the success of the blockbuster film “Wonder Woman” and its homegrown lead actress, Gal Gadot. Intrigued by the movie’s popularity, I went to see the movie in which the exotic super heroine has a slight foreign accent thanks to Gadot’s portrayal. I emerged from the theater convinced it was no wonder many Israelis, and especially Israeli women, identified with the protagonist. As a fresh, disruptive, ambitious and accomplished character, Wonder Woman captures the essence of Israeli femininity.

But unlike the protagonist in the movie, women in Israel do not need superpowers to succeed and thrive in our personal or professional lives. Our feminine power is in keeping with and has helped foster Israel’s existence as a startup nation that encourages innovation and creativity. Israeli women are uncompromising, tenacious and determined in our pursuit of far-reaching fulfillment at the personal, family and societal levels. The fact is that real Israeli women are playing a sizable role in shaping our society.

Feminine presence in Israel crosses many sectors, but in the financial world, it is a dominant phenomenon. At this moment in time, the main financial pivots of power are in women’s hands. Three of Israel’s leading banks are currently led by women, myself included. At Bank Leumi — which I have had the privilege to lead for the past five years — more than 40% of the top management are, in fact, women. This is in addition to the governor of the Bank of Israel, the supervisor of banks and the director of the capital markets, insurance and savings authority — all of whom are women.

When thinking about why women tend to dominate this sector in particular, one reflects on the accomplishments of my predecessor, Galia Maor, who ascended to the post of first female CEO of an Israeli bank back in the 1990s. She truly paved the way for us all. But we, as a country, have been fortunate to bear witness to a string of powerful women who influenced this nascent society in its early days — women who were nurtured on the liberal worldview that had developed in the Western world and that contributed to their self-perception.

Here, women were encouraged to become political leaders, farmers, founders of Kibbutzim and rural and urban communities, cultural and literary luminaries, and managers within the budding national economy in its infancy. Even before we celebrated our 30th Independence Day, we came under the rule of a female prime minister, Golda Meir, who was a powerful and influential leader. Our history includes fearless fighters, legal professionals, world-class groundbreaking scientists, and shapers of the Israeli economic landscape, including Ms. Maor.

While some societies are still weighed down with the baggage of conservatism and outdated traditions, Israeli culture encourages women to shake off old notions of passivity and obedience and to engage as equals with men academically, professionally and in the military. Women are encouraged to strive for excellence in these endeavors, not because they’re endowed with special powers — but because they possess the strength and skills to succeed.

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There are many reasons for this attitude, all of which revolve around our being a young nation. If we were to realize the Zionist project, we had to shake off old thought patterns and invent new ones, including an overall attitude toward women: We simply could not afford passive, submissive, obedient women. We were beset by tremendous challenges from the very start, including those of a security-based, social, cultural and spiritual nature.

Growing up in this ecosystem — and as one of three sisters in a middle-class family that greatly valued education and hard work — I was fortunate to never feel personally judged as a woman. I was first and foremost an individual.

During my military service (in Israel we are all conscripted, men and women alike), I was measured for my abilities — not for my gender or my lineage. During my academic studies, I was encouraged by the men in my life (my father and then my husband) to reach for exceptionalism, to be creative and audacious — right alongside my male and female peers. These events were followed by a tough, lengthy climb up the career path in the challenging world of finance. No corners were cut for me, and my personal capabilities were continually scrutinized.

A colleague once told me that her image of me was someone who got into the elevator and pushed the button straight up to the CEO floor. I was so surprised by this perception that, ever since then, I have made it a point to discuss the difficulties I faced along the way. Again, I was continually scrutinized for my abilities as a professional and then as a manager. Once I became CEO, the fact that I was a woman attracted disproportionate attention in many ways, especially in the media. I believe that being aware of the hardships of professional life is an integral part of the climb up the corporate ladder.

As I ascended my own ladder, I was measured for inventiveness, the ability to improvise and the strength to face challenges and deliver quick efficient solutions. I believe that these traits should be expected of both men and women in order to succeed and to deliver the goods.

Often, I meet young women who are interested to hear what it’s like to be a female CEO of one of Israel’s largest banks. Even more so, they are curious and eager to get some practical advice on how to get there. My answer to them is what I pass on to my own daughters each and every day — that in these modern times, the most important element is to mark your goal clearly and to be brave and determined in achieving it.

Fortunately for us, there are powerful, groundbreaking women around the world who have already established an environment in which we should no longer have to bear the burden of proof of our capabilities. We have already proven our abilities to lead, to deliver, and to be creative and daring.

However, our journey is not yet over. The fact that gender inequality is still such an issue around the world today demonstrates that we must continue to strive toward a more just and egalitarian society — one that encourages the kind of female leadership that I have been fortunate to be a part of here in Israel.

Editor's note: This post is part of an ongoing series examining diversity issues in the banking industry. See previous posts by Maria Vullo, Eric Arthrell, and Allyson Kapin and Craig Newmark, and visit American Banker's Women in Banking page.

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