A Women, an Arab Engineer, and a Haredi Certified Coder Walk Into a Job Interview
While work from home, as a new standard, helped remove some of the barriers preventing diversity in Israeli tech, there is still a long way to go to ensure equal opportunities are truly available
With over 1 million people signing up for unemployment in Israel in recent months due to the global coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis, issues like workplace diversity tend to be pushed aside. In tech, however, a genuine talent crunch remains an incentive for companies to seek diversity, which is considered an engine for growth and innovation.
But, motivation aside, many companies still fail to integrate women and other minority groups in their workforce. For example, hiring members of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jewish minority and especially women from it can be complicated. For religious reasons, members of this group, typically prefer gender-segregated working spaces and Kosher cell-phones and have no internet connection at home, making many companies feel hiring them would be too much hassle.
Members of the Arab minority, on the other hand, are excluded entirely from Israeli cybersecurity companies for fear of losing contracts with defense clients. Women, however, still more often than not, taking on a heavier burden of domestic life and chores, shy away from cybersecurity companies fearing long hours and a shaky work-life balance due to the nature of the work that requires availability around the clock.
The spread of the pandemic did help reduce the prominence of some of the barriers preventing workplace diversity in tech. As working from home became the new norm, it is now less crucial for workers to live near the country’s central tech hubs, as a daily commute will likely not be necessary.
On the other hand, with all of the newly unemployed, there are suddenly so many potential employees to choose from, that companies will still likely opt for more conventional candidates that come from the right neighborhoods, schools, and military units, over candidates that require effort on the employer’s part.
Even though an academic degree is no longer a strict requirement for technological positions in tech, many organizations still prefer a university graduate. Most companies would pick a graduate from research university Technion Israel Institute of Technology, over someone who graduated from an Israeli college, which normally has lower requirements. Someone without a degree, that has a certificate from a specialized tech course, would likely be their last choice.
Reality objectively tends to stand in the way of diversifying the workforce, according to Amit Baruch, head of the Tel Aviv research and development center for Citigroup. As a global corporation, Citi has very clear diversity goals, Baruch told Calcalist, but for many Arab Technion graduates who live in northern Israel, a two-hour commute to Tel Aviv is unbearable.
“We realized that the best way to recruit Arab engineers is through a referral system, as the Arab population in Israel is very community-oriented and its members prefer to work with people they already have common grounds with,” Baruch said.
Still, Baruch said, there is a long way to go and as long as Israel fails to create a reliable public transportation system from its more distant areas to its center, equal opportunities will not be within reach.
When it comes to hiring Haredim, Citi encounters a different set of challenges, Baruch said. Haredi men and women usually get their education from less established institutions and have poor English skills, which makes it difficult for them to compete with Technion graduates, he explained. This gap creates an inequality that is difficult to bridge, he added.
Employing diverse populations requires substantial investment by the employer, according to Shirley Hillinger, City Israel’s head of human resources. “In the past few years, we are working hard to promote the employment of people with disabilities, which required an entire array of training for different teams to make sure the integration is mutually beneficial to all parties,” Hillinger told Calcalist.
“There are quite a few population groups that are left out of the tech industry and what it has to offer, both in terms of personal development and the fulfillment of potential and in terms of salaries and employment conditions,” Hillinger said. “Expanding the circle of employment in this sector would demand the integration of diverse populations, leading to smaller gaps and equal opportunity,” she said. “This is an issue that must be part of the strategy and values of companies and must constantly be paid attention to.”
The human structure of a company’s management, very much determines its path to employee diversity, according to Maya Wolkoon, general manager of Israel at online event planning startup HoneyBook Inc.
“Of HoneyBook’s employees, 57% are female and management is composed of more women than men,” Wolkoon said, “but when you examine other groups, like Arabs or Haredim, they are much more difficult for us to recruit.” Located in central Tel Aviv, Arab tech workers living in the northern or southern parts of the country find it difficult to get to HoneyBook’s offices, she said.
According to Wolkoon, the silver lining of Covid-19 is a possible solution to this particular issue. “Since the pandemic sent everyone to work from home, we realized our workers are super productive, even at a distance,” she said. “For us, this means we can hire people from Israel’s north or south regions if we set up a slightly different employment format that makes traveling to the office less of a barrier.”
Tech is renowned for its lack of gender equality, as there are more male employees and more importantly more male managers. One reason may be that women are reluctant to apply to companies that do not offer flexible working hours.
According to Alon Arvatz, co-founder and general manager of Israel at cybersecurity startup IntSights Cyber Intelligence Ltd., the real challenge faced by cybersecurity companies is the employment of women. While tech, in general, does not have enough women, cybersecurity companies are even worse off, Arvatz told Calcalist.
One reason for this is that most employees in cybersecurity come from predominantly male military elite tech units, Arvatz said. The other, more interesting reason, he said, is that you need to be available at all times, as cyberattacks can occur at any minute, even at night, and that is a deterrent. "We are actively putting in the effort to recruit women and show flexibility in terms of life-work balance to remove this barrier,” Arvatz added.