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The Illusion of Charedi Women in High-Tech

Response Article To "The Price of the Full Cart"

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Sari Kroizer Hi-Tech Manager

In the field of women's employment, high hopes are placed on the tech industry. But The expectation that Charedi women will succeed in the high-tech world is an illusion. This illusion has a price tag, and leads to the frustration of thousands of women working in high-tech. High school graduates are mistakenly drawn to the industry expecting to procure a high-income job that suits the character of Charedi mothers. But in truth, success in the high-tech industry requires very different skills to those supplied by the Charedi education system. Bridging the gap is no small feat, and not necessarily a desirable one.

Adar 1 5779 / February 2019

The question of employment options for Charedi men is among the most discussed topic, inside and outside of Charedi society. For its own sustainability, and for the economic needs of Israel, the matter of Charedi men’s integration in the workforce, and the related question of education and higher education, loom heavy on the shoulders of many of Israel’s decision makers. But what of Charedi women? The matter of Charedi women’s employment is often seen as a success story. They work in a range of occupations, their participation in the workforce is similar to that of non-Haredi Israeli women, and for many families they are the primary breadwinners in the Charedi home.

But behind the success story lies no small amount of frustration. As Maayan Meir wrote in a recent piece, for many Charedi women the multiple responsibilities of working, of running a home, of being mother to many children and devoted wife to a Torah scholar, are simply overwhelming. Lower wages are also a significant issue: Ruthy Kepler writes why lower salaries should not come as a surprise, and that they involve a conscious choice; but many individual women are not making that conscious choice (it is made on a communal, collective level), and the situation of working hard for low pay, without rosy horizons for the future, can involve constant frustration.

Many see a glimmer of hope in the tech (or high-tech) industry. In fact, the current situation, and the way things have been managed for several years, is that the great majority of mathematically talented girls are funnelled into the “computers track” of post-high school education. Thousands of Charedi girls are trained to enter the tech field. Huge amounts of money are funnelled into the vision of Charedi women providing Israel with its under-supply of computer engineers and programmers. True, the entry level of Charedi women is lower than that of students with a degree from Hebrew University. But they will ultimately find a job, and make their way up from there. Or will they?

In this article I want to discuss the particular difficulties and frustrations of the Charedi tech worker, and to explain why this should not be the only vision, or even the dominant vision, for successful integration of Charedi women in high-level employment.

For the past ten years, I managed Charedi female tech workers in several of positions and across a range of employment models. I managed groups of Charedi contract workers in a “hothouse” environment that provides for the special needs and preferences of Charedi woman; of Charedi female students who combined their academic studies with tech work; and of Charedi women integrated into “regular” teams.

In my view, these women are challenged by contradicting expectations surrounding their role in their homes and in society. On the one hand, during their years in school they are convinced that tech work is the dream track. They hear of Charedi women who are miraculously both full time accomplished housewives and brilliant and successful tech workers. They imbibe the dream of the tech “Eishes Chayil,” fully devoted to her home and family on the one hand while also being a star in the tech world, the latter reflected of course in a fat paycheck and excellent conditions.

Yet when these girls set out for work, they discover that the tech world is different than what they imagined or were told. They learn that to succeed in the tech industry they will need more than their reputation as talented and diligent students. These women experience deep frustration at encountering a harsh reality that exposes the illusions they were operating under.

…during their years in school they are convinced that tech work is the dream track… But when these girls set out for work, they discover that the tech world is different than what they imagined or were told.

Charedi women are often wonderful workers. They are talented, dedicated, reliable, and honest. But all this does not necessarily make them excellent tech sector workers or even equal to their peers among the general public. To succeed today in a technology industry, one must excel at traits that are less common to Charedi women, despite their many virtues. This is of course a generalization to which there are always exceptions. But these are exceptions. We must adapt our expectations to match reality if we are to avoid further pain and frustration. In so doing, we can encourage more intelligent, self-aware decisions and allow for a better-informed assessment of Charedi women’s roles in the Israeli tech industry.

 

Small Mind Syndrome

Work in the technology disciplines is not always well-defined. Today’s tech world expects initiative and curiosity, coupled with a lot of independent thought and a desire to disrupt conventions. The greatest successes in tech are those that result from daring thinking and the push for innovation. Technology work requires a desire to do things differently; it rewards those individuals who make things happen, those who influence great directional changes and are unafraid to take risks.

Israel is the “Start-Up Nation” because of the chutzpah of its engineers, who do not work by the book, insisting instead on doing things differently. This is precisely the definition of a successful tech worker. A veteran engineer once defined his ideal developer as a worker who manages himself. Such a worker proposes new ideas for improving and increasing efficiency, sharpens her skills by investing time and effort on professional development, study, and experimentation, and elevates both herself and her team over the long term. This individual does not need a manager to detail every step of a project and carefully define every mission. She understands the goals and objectives and pursues them relentlessly.

In addition, a tech employer’s dream worker truly loves what he does. Writing code fascinates him; engineering excites him. He dwells on projects outside office hours because the work interests him and is important to him. His professional achievements and the success of the product are close to his heart and he goes the extra mile to realize these.

Charedi women are indeed wonderful workers. Nonetheless, they do not generally exemplify the traits of a high achieving tech worker. They do not bring with them independence of thought and daring, and are unwilling to take risks.

All the above characterize an individual who thinks independently and is driven by a mission. In many respects, Charedi women are indeed wonderful workers. Nonetheless, they do not generally exemplify the traits of a high achieving tech worker. They do not bring with them independence of thought and daring, and are unwilling to take risks. Charedi workers tend to minimize their communication with other people at work. They prefer to remain in their cubicle, fully focused on their assignments. They will choose not to stand out even when they have an opportunity to shine. As a result, they are less likely to develop and advance professionally.

It has been repeated over and over that female Charedi employees exemplify a “strong work ethic,” which is certainly true with respect to the specific matter of “time stealing.” These women are far less likely to waste time in the coffee room and the like and are generally very conscientious about their time and efforts. I manage women who ask me how they should report the few minutes they take for praying Mincha or a lunch break.

But, in light of the above, chatting with colleagues over coffee, or even moments for rest and prayer, are not always time wasted in the eyes of tech employers. It is in the employer’s interest to facilitate the new idea or novel direction that may be inspired by a passing conversation. A refreshed and relaxed worker performs better; if a worker is devoted to her job and is not trying to escape it, stepping away from the cubicle can allow her to return with a clear head and renewed focus. It is in the employer’s interest that such a worker take the appropriate breaks and overall feels comfortable in his place of work.

Extremely conscientious Charedi women might be seen as highly valuable for work of clerical or repetitive nature, but these attributes do not necessarily elevate the quality of their work in the tech industries. Indeed, sometimes the opposite is true.

Extremely conscientious Charedi women might be seen as highly valuable for work of clerical or repetitive nature, but these attributes do not necessarily elevate the quality of their work in the tech industries. Indeed, sometimes the opposite is true.

Furthermore, assignments in tech work are not always clearly defined. There are times when a team leader is busy. He may not have the time or interest to outline a new assignment for the workers. At such times, team members may be expected to be independently broad-minded and forward thinking, utilizing their time for new initiatives and professional development. Charedi workers are weaker in these areas. Charedi women (generally speaking, of course) come to follow orders, and they do not tend to think themselves of the next step.

I have often encountered bored workers, those who complete their assignment and do not even bother to notify their team leader. They do not see it as their responsibility to do so, and they certainly do not take advantage of the “extra time” to improve efficiency or think ahead. Upon receiving an assignment they are certainly diligent not to steal a moment of the employer’s time. But once the assignment is completed they remain passive; if the boss needs them, he knows where to find them. And certainly, after 3:30 PM – or whenever the scheduled workday is over – they give no thought to work matters at all. This is not the definition of a dedicated worker in today’s tech sectors.

 

Social Interaction

Lone wolves are not usually the strongest tech workers. Tech work relies on initiative and innovation, and these require active interaction with other people. To create, it is important to hear a range of ideas and opinions, to stay up to date with industry developments, to understand the group’s collective challenges, to be exposed to the company’s overall portfolio and direction and the various ways it is solving problems. Moreover, warm work relations are necessary to successfully move initiatives forward, to motivate team members to help out, and to call others to action when one needs “all hands on deck” to get a project done in time. In sum: To truly accomplish, whether on the technical level or on the process side, strong communication between people is critical.

Tech companies have good reason to encourage socialization at work. …Charedi women prefer email communication rather than face to face interaction.. They separate themselves socially, leading to a degree of professional isolation. Of course, these choices are understandable as values, but they impede on Charedi women’s ability to shine professionally.

Tech companies have good reason to encourage socialization at work. Open space seating, conferences, well stocked coffee rooms, and team events, all of which being common at tech companies, are designed to encourage interaction between coworkers. Companies thus incentivize their teams to hear and be heard, and to develop a strong network that will help the individual worker and ultimately the company. Yes, the camaraderie and pleasant work atmosphere are intended to make workers feel at “home,” and home is a place one cares about and invests in.

For employers, “wasting time” of this sort leads to good things. It does not matter much to an employer if his programmers can code at record-breaking speed. Technological breakthroughs do not come in an instant; they are invariably the result of trial and error, of direct and indirect thinking, and focused, yet free-thinking teamwork. Employers care mostly about results. So long as a worker produces excellent results, his or her employer will be satisfied. These successes usually require collaborative work with other people.

In my experience, and of course this is a generalization, Charedi women prefer email communication over face to face interaction. Yes, they prefer to sit in their own groups, for reasons of modesty and a desire to maintain a homogenous environment, and they decline to take part in social events for the same reasons. They separate themselves socially, leading to a degree of professional isolation. Of course, these choices are understandable as values, but they impede on Charedi women’s ability to shine professionally.

 

Education

Graduates of Charedi schools are trained and will receive a certificate in programming. Such a certificate is far from the full training entailed in a computer science degree. While the Charedi programs’ tech track will teach the necessary technical knowledge to write code, it does not provide a fundamental background in computer science. As a result, Charedi women who graduate these programs are strong primarily as practical technicians and code writers. In some positions these strengths are sufficient, but there is a reason that tech employers prefer university graduates with computer science degrees, especially for roles at the cutting edge of the industry.

It may take longer for a university graduate to make an obvious contribution to the work, but when he begins to do so, his contribution will almost always be qualitatively greater. The theoretical background studied in university enables the graduate to write better code and provides a more complete understanding of the bigger picture. University graduates likewise develop greater planning and analytical skills. Indeed, university studies afford workers a better starting point in their careers, including also a stronger ability to manage change and uncertainty. University graduates are used to not being spoon-fed their work or shown what to do at each step. They know how to work hard and independently to find answers and to excel. True, these skills can be acquired on the job by learning from others, but, once again, doing so requires both robust interaction with the experienced engineers and personal investment of time and effort.

Employers are not prejudiced when they prefer to hire university graduates. Experience has shown them that university graduates have better odds at succeeding and excelling over time.

Employers are not prejudiced when they prefer to hire university graduates. To my regret, I have seen several Charedi employers do it too. Experience has shown them that university graduates have better odds at succeeding and excelling over time. In an article in Haaretz, MK Michael Malkieli blamed the Education Ministry and the Council for Higher Education for not recognizing the programming tracks in the Beis Yaakov schools as an academic degree. According to him, these bodies are responsible for the lower wages of Charedi tech workers: “The hypocritical policy of the Education Ministry and the CHE leads to disgraceful exploitation of tech workers by greedy companies.”

As noted above, I do not believe we are dealing with disgraceful exploitation or especially greedy companies, certainly not greedier than any other business. We are all interested in preserving a strong Israeli tech industry, which is one of the engines driving the Israeli economy forward. Recognizing the Beis Yaakov studies as academic degrees will not solve the distress of Charedi women. On the contrary, doing so will likely strengthen the illusion that such studies are a sufficiently good starting platform to success in the tech sector. This will further increase their frustration upon discovering that employers do not view it as such.

The gap between Beis Yaakov graduates and those holding university degrees results from tangible differences between their respective study tracks: both the curriculum and the skills developed and encouraged are different. Accepting this should reduce some of the frustration associated with the women’s lower wages, or at the very least channel the agitation in more productive directions. Bestowing an academic seal of approval on Beis Yaakov studies will not change anything.

 

Not a Career Woman

So, what is animating this frustration on the part of Charedi women in tech? Are these workers simply unattuned to the dynamics of their jobs and companies? Why is it that what seems clear to employers is not clear to their prospective and current employees? I believe Charedi tech workers do indeed belong in a unique category. These women experience perpetual tension between a sense that they should not be career women – not to devote themselves to their jobs any more than necessary – and a very real need to be good workers and excel at their tasks. This is an almost irresolvable conflict.

As matters stand today, the typical Charedi woman wants to maintain these priorities. Or at least the perception thereof, in both her own eyes and that of her community. She prefers the image of a perfect mother and devoted wife rather than that of a successful career woman. I have witnessed situations whereby a woman refused a full time position, even when doing so would hardly have changed her commuting schedule, just to “prove” that she works part time and is not career oriented.

Many Charedi women will decline roles that entail leadership and management. Talented women, who naturally can and want to make an impact, will shy away from additional responsibilities and thereby limit their own advancement.

Many Charedi women will decline roles that entail leadership and management. Talented women, who naturally can and want to make an impact, will shy away from additional responsibilities and thereby limit their own advancement. Sometimes these hesitations are associated with leading a mixed-gender team, but in other cases they simply avoid expanding their influence since more influence requires greater investment. Travel for work, work from home or long hours, and in general intense focus on work are looked at askance or even criticized in the Charedi woman’s social circle.

Both these factors, the real tension over the competing values as well as the concern for one’s image and place in society, contribute to many Charedi women’s refusal to advance in their companies. I have dealt with women who rejected promotion opportunities, explaining that “my husband turned up his nose.” It is thus no wonder that there is often a serious shortage of management manpower in the Israeli tech “hothouses” where large groups of Charedi women work.

It is hard for any worker to see a less talented peer promoted over her. It is also unnatural to resist the urge for advancement, even if and when such resistance is based on well considered values. I once had a wonderful worker to whom I offered a leadership position. She refused on grounds of religious and personal values, and entirely shut down, losing even those impressive talents she once had. In retrospect, it may have been a mistake to put her in that position.

For an employer, it is obviously more worthwhile to invest in workers who aspire to management or technical leadership roles than in those whose horizons are narrower. Charedi workers are excellent “soldiers,” but a company also needs to cultivate commanders, and these are hard to grow from such a population.

 

A Fast Track to Frustration

Charedi women working in tech are locked in clashing social expectations, placing them in an impossible position that inevitably leads to frustration. On the one hand, these women are expected to stay exactly as they were as Beit Yaakov students. They are expected to work strictly in the company of other Charedi women and not interact with general society, not invest too much time and effort in their work, see their primary roles as being mothers and wives, and not think independently or acquire academic degrees – and if they do the latter, not to talk about it.

On the other hand, they are sold dreams, directly imported from general society, of huge salaries and the ability to provide for a Ben Torah with dignity, alongside satisfying work utilizing their welcome talents (graduates of Beit Yaakov tracks graduate with an average above 98%). They develop false expectations of succeeding and excelling at a demanding job, in highly competitive and dynamic workplaces where even the strong struggle to survive.

society expects Charedi women to be superwomen – brilliant tech stars and model mothers. Is it reasonable to expect them to effectively compete for their place in the tech labor market between the narrow constraints of eight AM and four PM?

The tech sector demands investment and dedication to one’s work, broadmindedness, initiative, and constant advancement. Our institutions do not encourage these traits in women, and by their nature are not designed to produce highly competitive tech workers. At the same time, society expects Charedi women to be superwomen – brilliant tech stars and model mothers. Is it reasonable to expect them to effectively compete for their place in the tech labor market between the narrow constraints of eight AM and four PM?

To keep all the balls in the air, be model mothers, maintain the image of a woman who is not career driven, while living up to exacting social standards and remaining motivated and excited one needs much more than great math skills. It is hardly a human feat.

Constant organizational changes, a meritocratic “survival of the fittest” environment, and the general instability of the tech industry require even accomplished workers to invest endlessly, think long term, market themselves, nimbly move between companies, and remain patient between jobs. Few positions in the industry remain stable over long periods of time. In turbulent times, Charedi women, especially those who are temporary workers in “hothouses” that are otherwise suitable for them, are the first to be harmed.

Of course they are frustrated. These women, who go above and beyond, still hear the illusory descriptions from school reverberating in their ears. And yet, despite their efforts, they make half the salary of their peers in the general population. They do not want, and may not be able, to invest what is needed to progress in the tech market. They thought of tech as a safe and secure employment track and each young woman imagines she will become the next star of Israeli high-tech. Instead, they find themselves working a routine job for average pay without and real prospect of advancement. Their dreams are lost amid anguished sounds of “kotzer ruach v’avoda kasha.” But who is at fault for this state of affairs? The employers? Market forces? The CHE and the Education Ministry who refuse to grant their studies the academic imprimatur? Or perhaps those who sold them these illusions of tech success in the first place?

The notion that Charedi girls should enter the tech industries is due for some serious deliberation and reexamination. It is unfair to send our young women into battle with their hands tied.

The notion that Charedi girls should enter the tech industries is due for some serious deliberation and reexamination. It is unfair to send our young women into battle with their hands tied. The solution to the problem is certainly not to lash out at employers or market forces. It is time to tell these women the truth and lay out for them and their families the true price of entry into the tech world.

There is much to the Charedi social demand whereby women are devoted first and foremost to their homes and households, rather than to developing their careers. I do not mean to argue against it. On the contrary, the values of many Charedi women cannot be contested. They choose “the full cart” – to reuse the expression recently adopted by Mrs. Ruthy Keppler in her article on the low wages of Charedi women – and it is a choice to be respected. The problem lies in the mistaken illusion presented to them, the sense that they can succeed in the tech industry without sacrificing their way of life and basic values.

To some extent, Charedi women suffer from a problem similar to the larger struggle of a “post-feminism” generation, in which women must fight for professional status in a male world but without giving up their traditional feminine roles. It is no wonder that Charedi women feel this situation is unfair. They are caught between two conflicting expectations: the one sees them as laying golden eggs, while the other sees them as model housekeepers devoted to home and family.

Most absurd is that when all is said and done, tech work does not really enrich Charedi women. Although women sacrifice a great deal to remain devoted to their homes, our culture often regards them as well taken care of economically. After all, they work in the dizzy world of the hi-tech industry. But the women themselves know all too well that salaries are hardly spectacular; and they know how high a price they pay, day after day, just for holding on.

It is time to accept these women’s choices without judgment, whether they choose to provide for their homes or to stay at home. Our women should be regarded with the highest respect. They really do the best they can, and are Neshos Chayil in every possible sense.


photo: Bigstock

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