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Leah Fishoff Manager of Employment Department at Shlavim Organization

The relatively low salaries of Charedi women might be a consequence of their was of life, but this can hardly be called the price of their choices. The frustration of Charedi women in the workforce stems from the fact that most of them never made a conscious choice to work in a demanding and exacting job, for a low salary, alongside rearing large families. Upon entering post-high school education they had no idea of what lay in store for them. It is unfair to tell them to stop complaining and carry the burden of choices they never made. Bettering their lot requires giving seminary students a full picture of the prices their choices exact. And giving them the right to choose.

Adar 1 5779 / February 2019

In her essay, Mrs. Kepler discusses the relatively low wages of Charedi women, reminding us that every choice has a price. Raising a large Charedi family is a values-based choice, the price of which is clearly quantified in the woman’s paystub. Mrs. Kepler argues that claims of discrimination should not be directed at the CEOs of tech companies or even at the founders of the Charedi tech “hothouses.” Rather, women pay a price for their choices and they should recognize the same. According to her line of reasoning, all that is needed to allay feelings of exploitation is to present the perspective of employers and to outline more broadly the workings of a free market. Workers will thus be convinced to willingly accept the implications of their otherwise correct choices. One can agree with everything she says, with one caveat: did Charedi women actually choose their way of life?

Yes, every choice bears a price, and one can and should pay – even sacrifice – for his or her values. But the dissatisfaction of these women is driven by the simple reality that they never actually made these choices.

There would be ample room for Kepler’s argument if these choices were indeed made freely. Feelings of discrimination could then be countered by reminding us of those lofty values in pursuit of which we forgo higher pay and better conditions. Yes, every choice bears a price, and one can and should pay – even sacrifice – for his or her values. But the dissatisfaction of these women is driven by the simple reality that they never actually made these choices. Many did not choose their employment track; nor did they opt to forgo pay and career advancement, certainly not consciously. They adhered to the values they were taught, without ever understanding their implications.

Charedi girls are educated in a prescribed environment, along a walled path intended to shield them and ensure they stay on the straight and narrow and live the life intended for them. A girls’ Beit Yaakov high school in Israel is like a freeway where exits are separated by a hundred kilometers’ distance. Once in school, most girls are speeding along and have precious little room for choice. When they do make it through the first few years of adult life and stop to think, they are already in a home full of children, with demanding work (inside the house and outside) and low wages. Turning the clock back at this point and making significant life changes is nearly impossible.

 

An Unfree Choice

Choices can only truly be considered such when the options are presented openly and fairly to the chooser. The information shared must also include the relative costs of each option. If, under the guise of offering options, one limits the available choices (e.g. presenting two of the three possibilities); indirectly coerces the desired outcome (e.g. negative consequences will result if the undesired path is chosen); or withholds the true price of a particular option (e.g. failing to inform that the red pill has serious side effects); then the ultimate decision can hardly be viewed as a freely made choice .

Women who are today “stuck” in unsatisfying jobs were placed on their respective paths years earlier, when they chose from among the very limited professional training tracks offered in Charedi girls’ schools. Even given the benefit of a proper screening process to inform their choice of occupation prior to choosing a major in 12th grade, findings would necessarily be limited to the professions taught in those institutions. Even employment advisory services offered in Charedi communities have agreed (in official agreements with the schools and rabbanic bodies) to refrain from providing Charedi girls with the same assessments offered to the general Charedi population. In other words, most girls are left to choose (roughly) between tracks for accounting, programming, or teaching (with its various specialties). Some schools may also offer architecture and interior design. And that’s about it.

As Mrs. Kepler herself notes, the fields of therapy or medical professions, which require a degree, are not offered; nor are any other science-related fields available. Even the law profession, which some Charedi women have entered into, is closed to high school girls. Furthermore, the scope and format of the standardized high school diploma tests offered in the Bais Yaakov schools are highly limited, such that a girl seeking to transition to other professions or institutions of study must overcome a significant disadvantage. Even the tech offerings are limited and outdated, so that much supplementary professional development is needed to succeed. A certificate from the Government Institute for Technology and Sciences has long since ceased to be valuable currency in the employment market. At this point, recognition of such certification is limited to the Bais Yaakov bulletins.

[…] the scope and format of the standardized high school diploma tests offered in the Bais Yaakov schools are limited, such that a girl seeking to transition to other professions or places of study must overcome a significant disadvantage.

Let us set aside the limited options. Even within the tracks offered, are young women sufficiently prepared for the professions of their choice? Independent contract work is often the best way to earn a decent living in the fields offered. Graphic and interior design, photography, and even architecture at the level studied in the seminars, all result in a very narrow range of employment options. Graduates of the architecture track may be hired as draftswomen for minimum wage at an architecture firm, and a graduate of the graphics design track can find work for similar pay at a newsletter publisher. After a while it becomes clear to many women that the best alternative to working themselves to death as wage earners laboring ten hours a day is to open their own business.

Setting up and establishing an independent business requires a financial cushion. It also requires constant and Sisyphean efforts to market and sell one’s service throughout the life of the business. You need to invest in branding and publicity. You will also obviously not make money from the get-go, but only after a long period of maturation. Succeeding in the freelance market in Israel requires much independent knowledge beyond the subject matter itself. Indeed, some girls would probably be better off seeking employment as wage earners rather than attempting to study a profession they are unsuited for.

Yes, young women are unaware of the supplementary education they will need to advance in their profession. As noted above, study tracks offered by seminaries in the tech fields are far behind the industry. Girls are sometimes denied access to materials, devices and networks whose familiarity with is vital to their professional prospects. Are our young women adequately prepared to compete for a reasonable position in the broader market? Even in other employment sectors things are unclear. What sort of certificate is earned in a given track: one recognized by the Education Ministry or by the HMOs? What positions are open to someone with such a certificate, and how can it be upgraded? These questions are not answered in any clear or organized fashion. Moreover, the schools seem invested in perpetuating this opacity, resulting in much “We’ll check/we’ll see/maybe we’ll get permission later in the year” — and so on.

Are our young women adequately prepared to compete for a reasonable position in the broader market?

In the context of making informed choices, the decision-making process of Charedi women when it comes to professional studies is hardly characterized by free choice. We cannot consider these to be true choices, when the subjects simply lack reasonable information about the costs of these choices. When making the decision these young women simply don’t know what they are getting into: they are ignorant of the level of learning they will need, and neither do they know much about the other attributes critical to holding a profitable job in the field. Indeed, others are essentially choosing for them.

In addition, decisions regarding choice of study track are often directed by non-economic considerations. For instance, social whims sweep girls from accounting to engineering, the latter being suddenly more prestigious, with little regard for any underlying economic rationale to the move. At one point, special education was a most popular profession to pursue, and the entire track collapsed under its own weight. Parents, seeking to promote their daughter’s image in the upcoming search for a shidduch, might encourage the latest trend over a profession which is economically sound and truly a good fit for the girl’s character. The ease with which a profession is chosen – a choice that profoundly influences the girl’s future life – is a feature of the limited available options, along with a profound misunderstanding of the labor market and the significance of professional training. Social pressure has a powerful influence: if “everyone’s doing it,” someone must have thought it all through and concluded that this is the best track.

In the context of making informed choices, the decision-making process of Charedi women when it comes to their professional studies is hardly characterized by free choice.

Can girls complete their studies in high school and switch to another institution for professional training? In principle, yes. But in practice, most will not leave the Bais Yaakov seminary in favor of another option. The vast majority stays on and studies in the post high school professional tracks offered at the seminaries. Sometimes this is a decision driven by spiritual priorities, a desire to remain within the protected confines of the Bais Yaakov network. This is a legitimate choice, of course. But all too often it is driven by fear of what others will “say,” and of course by concerns for the girl’s shidduch prospects.

Girls, often prodded by their parents, prefer to hunker down and wait for marriage. Then, if possible, they might start professional training anew as they wish. In practice, only a small minority do so. Most continue reluctantly along the professional track they started. And parents sometimes have other concerns to address. Even if economic prudence would suggest that an alternative setting is appropriate, parents may fear that if they send one daughter to a non-sanctioned professional training institution there may be consequences for younger siblings. If an older sister leaves the Bais Yaakov system after high school, refusing to remain for the duration of her professional training, younger sisters might not be accepted to that high school. All this amounts to nothing less that coercion in its most raw and painful form. It is certainly not the price of free choice. And the price is indeed high – tens of thousands of shekels for ineffective and inappropriate training, just so that the younger sisters’ prospects are not ruined.

 

Preparation for Practical Life

Various programs have been created to address the gap between what young Charedi women are prepared for in school and real life. In the light of studies pointing to significant pay gaps between Charedi and non-Charedi women, a number of government-funded programs were established, under the assumption of a real need for additional preparation – emotional, educational, and social – to give these young women the best chances at success.

Prima facie, these programs are intended to meet the needs described above, and clarify the implications of their choice of profession. The counselling offered is meant to prepare them for the realities of the workplace, advise on how to establish a career as a wage earner or independent business owner, and emphasize that in today’s job market one needs to work constantly to advance her career, rather than wait passively for recognition or promotion. However, it seems that these points are not in fact well communicated to the young women. They are certainly not being implements.

[…] programs meant to bridge the gap between the ideals of seminary education and the realities of the workplace, and to make the transition between them easier, instead became a well-oiled machine in support of the Bais Yaakov system and further reinforce its walls. […] The necessary conversation about the price of choosing work alongside raising a family is almost non-existent.

Much to the contrary, instructors at these programs, paid for by government funding, are teachers and educators from within the Bais Yaakov seminary system. At these programs, the young women will hear their familiar teachers speak at length about the dangers of going to work. The girls will learn about the barriers and boundaries religious women should create around themselves in the workplace. They remind the young women again and again that we are only doing hishtadlus (making an effort), while one’s livelihood truly comes from Heaven alone. Sustenance, no matter how much a woman works, is in fact provided via the husband: “You are merely a passive channel.” Thus, programs meant to bridge the gap between the ideals of seminary education and the realities of the workplace, and to make the transition between them easier, instead became a well-oiled machine in support of the Bais Yaakov system and further reinforce its walls. In the portions of the program dedicated to professional development, the young women hear about the rights they should demand from their employer and how to ensure that these are not trampled upon. Useful, marginal information about how to advance one’s career, which sectors to invest effort in pursuing, future trends in the market, and what fields should be further studied to maintain industry relevance, is hardly offered.

Above all, the necessary conversation about the price of choosing work alongside raising a family is almost non-existent. There is no systemic recognition of the inherent difficulties associated with raising a large family while working, in any field. These are two variables in an equation the solution to which is, at best, an enormous challenge. Rather, emphasis in these sessions is placed on warning the students and future professionals not to be distracted by temptations of a career, amid reminders that we do not run the world. There is a starting assumption that any woman who makes a significant effort can succeed in raising a large family and excel at a duly rewarding job, while her husband remains free to study Torah, released of the burden of supporting his family. There is no willingness to acknowledge the price a family pays for this way of life. The classes take place within a paradigm that simply does not recognize the possibility of a woman, couple, or family who don’t fit this model, or for whom choosing it may exact too heavy a cost.

In any decision-making process it is critical that the decision maker senses that he or she can (and must) bear the consequences of the choice, whatever it may be. If one option is presented as entirely unrealistic, such that the consequences of selecting it are intolerable, the range of available options is very much reduced. For Charedi women, any motivation to adopt a satisfying and demanding career, a process that entails careful attention over many years, is smothered by warnings, lectures, and conferences meant to protect the women from the evils of “Sodom and Amorra” that lie just outside the walls of the home. The message thereby communicated, whether implicitly or explicitly, is that our young women lack the tools to cope with these challenges. The outcome of this messaging is an aversion among Charedi women to making concrete efforts towards a long-term, significant, and satisfying occupation. Fears for compromising the character of the authentic Jewish home and the image of the Yiddishe Mama (usually one imagined mostly by the teachers) are successfully transmitted, deeply harming the ambition of girls to advance and succeed.

And yet, the economy and work conditions in Israel have changed in recent decades. Today, even teachers also work long hours. All but gone is the familiar motherly stereotype, waiting at home in the afternoon with a fresh lunch for her children. Who today doesn’t work till 4:00 pm? Even occupations that are not especially career oriented, such as secretaries or assistants in daycare centers and kindergartens, require longer hours than they did in the past. Under such conditions, there is little justification to advocate an ideal but unattainable (and dissonant from reality) employment model, while warning against the far more common contemporary realities women will likely encounter.

Far more helpful would be a focused effort to fairly and honestly present all the options to the girls. Thus informed, our young women will set out to work with less fear and antagonism to the outside world.

Far more helpful would be a focused effort to fairly and honestly present all available (and legitimate) options to girls. Thus informed, our young women will set out to work with less fear and antagonism toward the outside world. Terror at the thought of working long hours “at the expense of the children” would be replaced with an understanding that a reasonable standard of living requires more hours of work than in the past, that choices must be made, and that professional standards need to be met in order to succeed. By contrast, going to work as if going into battle prevents women from giving more of themselves and keeps them from being broad-minded, creative self-starters. On the contrary, defensiveness impedes initiative and an embattled attitude kills the joy of productive employment. Instead, women feel that if they do not aggressively stand guard over their values and rights, all will be lost. Any demand of their employer is perceived as a threat to their families, and every policy is a personal struggle against them. Thus, the cycle of discrimination-exploitation-bitterness paves its destructive path, to no party’s benefit.

 

Pay Experts

As discussed, studies hardly provide our young women with a realistic view of the employment market. This leads to a range of unique challenges. But the story does not end there.

Within a year or two of her entrance into the workforce, a new player enters the scene. Our model Bais Yaakov graduate marries a nice boy straight out of yeshiva. He was taught from infancy to aim for the sole exalted purpose of studying Torah, or at least a life in the world of Torah. He is not supposed to have any economic or career ambitions. All the same, these are in the air around him and he too is swept up by the winds of the time. He is exposed to notions of self-fulfillment and actualization, career success and economic opportunity. These ambitions he directs towards supporting and pushing his wife to advance her own career. Like the angel who hits the flower and tells it: “Grow!”, the new husband encourages his wife, “Grow! Ask! Be assertive!” He will not let the greedy employer so brutally exploit his talented wife! He is sure that if the demand for a raise and better terms is sufficiently clear and properly presented it will certainly be granted. And if his wife is too gentle? Well, he can talk to the boss himself! He usually fails to appreciate the balance of power in the company (surely it can’t be so different from the yeshiva hierarchy), and lacks comprehension of basic market conditions and their consequences. His intervention can lead to absurd situations, giving the woman herself a childish image.

Most of our young men today did not grow up with a maternal role model of a young woman juggling a demanding career and her family. […] As a result, today’s young men have no idea what their spouse’s professional advancement will require. They do not understand that extra working hours during crunch time is not the whim of a capricious boss, but an integral part of the job; they do not appreciate that to earn more, one must work more.

Most of our young men today did not grow up with a maternal role model of a young woman juggling a demanding career and her family. This will happen eventually, when the first group of female Charedi developers begins to marry off their own children (it is already beginning). Until then, most young men will have grown up with a mother who was a teacher or a clerk. These women will have remained in the same position for many years, earning a guaranteed pension and fair and protected vacations. As a result, today’s young men have no idea what their spouse’s professional advancement will require. They do not understand that extra working hours during crunch time is not the whim of a capricious boss, but an integral part of the job; they do not appreciate that to earn more, one must work more. Many of those imagining a “shidduch with a programmer” are unaware of the consequences entailed therein for daily life. Later, they will rage at the employer for being inconsiderate and for forcing women to forgo their sacred values and ideals. Like their wives, these men have not been given an opportunity to think realistically about the various options. They are trained in a theoretical world of concepts and ideals, and they have a hard time paying the price for attaining them. Or not.

It may be that today’s Israeli labor market cuts too deeply into the personal time and family commitments of its workers. But such is the nature of the Israeli economy today, and these are its conditions. It is almost impossible to be both a good, fully dedicated housewife alongside a successful tech worker. The notion that we will, by way of our women’s assertiveness, educate employers and the large firms to raise wages and at the same time moderate those same women’s demands by reminding them of the values they have chosen, is, with all due respect, pathetic.

Ultimately, life will teach the young couple a thing or two about work realities, among other lessons on life – those relevant to the family unit itself and those pertaining to what lies beyond it. Nothing quite teaches us about choices and their costs like life itself. Unfortunately, by then it may be late. Too late. At the very least, the range of available options will have been greatly constrained. Our young people would benefit from a much earlier discovery of the various options, their costs, and a general exposure to the realities in the field and of ways one can navigate them.

The choice of the full cart, as Mrs. Kepler so aptly describes it, is certainly a wonderful thing. But it is less wonderful when the choice is not conscious – not with respect to its costs and sometimes not even the choice itself. In Kepler’s opinion, the frustration of Charedi women can be changed only if we change the perspective from a feeling of discrimination and victimhood to an appreciation of choices and their prices. But a change of perspective is insufficient. Our reality needs to replace imaginary choice with real, informed choice.

 

The Wages and Costs of Mitzvos

To alleviate the frustration of our working women, we first and foremost need information – information that is accurate, impartial, and free of conflicting interests. Today, parents and girls choosing a professional study track need to conduct their own independent inquiry into the given field. They need to learn about the work conditions, average pay, and potential promotion tracks for each relevant choice. What is needed to advance at work, and which training is required to succeed rather than merely tread water? They cannot rely solely on the information provided by the given track’s marketing team or be satisfied with a government sponsored tour of Intel. Instead, they need to enlist the help of objective parties to better understand the value of a proposed degree and the benefits and costs of earning it elsewhere. They need to talk with women who work outside the Charedi “hothouses” and determine if doing so may be appropriate for their daughter. What is the cost in terms of time and emotional availability, and what is the earning potential? They need to talk to women who entered the workforce a decade earlier. Are they satisfied with the choices they made? The costs of each option, for better or worse, need to be clear to the parents and to the girl herself.

If a girl is thinking about a future running her own business, it is important that she be sure this is the right thing for her. Is doing so compatible with the way of life she is planning to live? Does she possess the necessary skills to succeed?

If a girl is thinking about a future running her own business – and if she ought to be thinking about it – it is important that she understands what choice entails. Is it compatible with the way of life she is planning to live? Does she possess the necessary skills to succeed? People should not hesitate to ask these questions just because there appear to be no other options. Perhaps parents will conclude that money spent on the professional studies tracks in the Bais Yaakov should instead be set aside and reserved for professional training later, at a different institution. They may try to arrange a substantial loan for the young couple, such that the couple can live while studying towards a degree and profession. Difficult, but it can be done. It may be better for a young woman to endure several intense years earlier in her life than find herself with six children, dragging herself to work each morning, unsatisfied and meagerly compensated.

There are indeed alternative paths to achieving what our young women need. We need not default to meek acceptance of what our schools presently offer. Our professional futures should not rest in the hands of exploitative bosses, and we will earn higher salaries by clamoring for regulations and affirmative action. These tools are important in and of themselves, but they only help those who actively pursue their own personal professional advancement. We are responsible for our professional paths, and for choosing what is suitable for each of us. And certainly, we must acknowledge the costs – costs in spirit and matter. We need to know what occupies our “full cart,” and what is the price of each item.

Our young men and women need to know what they are signing up for with the choices they make. Every young couple must have a full understanding of the implications associated with the life they are choosing, and understand that they are indeed making a choice. Sometimes our educational framework is so successful that couples have no idea what is a Torah prohibition, what might be a mandatory custom, and what is ultimately subject to individual discretion. Years may pass before they dare ask the questions. And sometimes it is too late. Couples and individuals alike need to learn that a proper discussion with a competent rabbi, one who understands the world in all its complexity, will often yield entirely different guidance than that which is seen in print and heard in lectures.

We are responsible for our professional paths, and for choosing what is suitable for each of us. And certainly, we must acknowledge the costs – costs in spirit and matter. We need to know what occupies our “full cart,” and what is the price of each item.

Talk of costs must extend to all areas of life. We cannot speak about sacrifice for Torah and the exalted mission of not disturbing a husband’s Torah study, while remaining silent about the potential price: the inability to raise emotionally healthy children prepared for Avodas Hashem. If we are to speak meaningfully about values and ideals, we must be willing to put their price on the table as well. Bravely, honestly, and with the recognition that choosing one spiritual ideal will claim its price in some other spiritual area. There is no way to escape paying up. A single objectively “correct” way does not exist. Each possible path involves its own sacrifice. Only when truly comprehensive conversations around costs open up will it be possible to speak about the price of choices and the consequences for our professional women. Only a woman whose decisions are placed in her own hands, who holds the reins of her own future life, can choose a professional path and stick to it proudly and successfully.


photo: Bigstock

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