Forging a new (female) banking tradition

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

Bank Leumi CEO Rakefet Russak-Aminoach, left, with former Leumi CEO Galia Maor. Photo by Moshe Shai/Flash90

Bank Leumi CEO Rakefet Russak-Aminoach, left, with former Leumi CEO Galia Maor. Photo by Moshe Shai/Flash90

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

But did you know that there’s a woman governor of the Bank of Israel, women heading three of the top five Israeli banks, a female CEO at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange as well as 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,” Amotz Asa-El, Middle East commentator for The Wall Street Journal, tells ISRAEL21c. “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 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.

“These are women who are leading in their fields; they are extremely professional,” says 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,” she tells ISRAEL21c.

‘The men made a big mess’

Israel’s banking sector got its first key woman player after the great stock market crash. 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 first 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.

“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,” Asa-El tells ISRAEL21c.

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 women CEOs.

Ronit Kark, senior lecturer at Bar-Ilan University’s department of psychology and a specialist in women and leadership, says 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,” Kark tells ISRAEL21c.

“On the other hand, 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.”

Less likely to take risks

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

“It creates equality, once they’re in,” says Asa-El, a former business editor at The Jerusalem Post. “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.”

A number of studies have shown that women in senior management positions are less likely to take risks than their male counterparts.

Kark cites the “glass cliff” phenomenon to explain why women are chosen to take on leadership roles. “Organizations that were doing badly on the stock market were taking in more women for their boards. When things are not working, they look for an alternative to signal this is an area of change.”

In an article for the Wall Street Journal’s Marketwatch, Asa-el writes: “What then do women like Israel’s new bankers bring that today’s banking needs? Well, besides top-notch degrees from America and Israel in economics, business and accounting as well as impressive records from previous positions as bankers and accountants, they bring what male bankers much less frequently possess: humility and caution.”

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About Viva Sarah Press

Viva Sarah Press is an associate editor and writer at ISRAEL21c. She has extensive experience in reporting/editing in the print, online and broadcast fields. She has jumped out of a plane, ducked rockets and been attacked by a baboon all in the name of a good story. Her work has been published by international media outlets including Israel Television, CNN, Reuters, The Jerusalem Post and Time Out.