It’s no secret that the high-tech industry around the world is predominantly male dominant. However, in addition to the general gender gap, there are women who have had to tackle additional challenges to climb to the top. Challenges that did not disappear with professional success, but have accompanied these strong women throughout their careers.
“I was the lone Ethiopian”
Mazal Ishta didn’t follow the typical path of the Intel engineer: “I grew up studying at religious schools, which didn’t offer a choice between technology majors,” she tells Geektime. But the first time she was introduced to computer sciences, Ishta realized that she had found her calling. After college, and working for a service provider that had Intel as a customer, Ishta had an epiphany. “It wasn’t enough for me… My dream is to be part of Intel.” To achieve this, Ishta started studying computer science, while working a full-time job. Today, Ishta is part of the Intel engineering club. “I wanted to prove it to myself,” she tells, despite her rough journey there. Ishta explains that coming from an ethnic-religious home, with 11 brothers and sisters, led her to believe that she was just never good enough: “When I arrived at Intel 8 years ago, I was the lone Ethiopian on-site, adding yet another reason I felt different and insecure.”
“Slowly, I went from feeling different to feeling unique - I realized that I’m pretty rare. The people I have worked with have all been amazing,” she recalls, and explains that her co-workers and managers at Intel were always conscious of adjusting social activities to Ishta’s religious background, so that she could participate. “This approach really helped me adjust and made me feel like I belong.”
From East Jerusalem to smashing stereotypes
Hanin Alqutob, a resident of East Jerusalem, has had to deal with the stereotype bug throughout her journey to high-tech. Following her biotechnology studies, Alqutob joined the Palestinian Internship Program, which connects college graduates with high-tech companies, and was accepted by SciPlay. She explains that the biggest challenge was breaking through everyone’s preconceived stereotypes - whether based on gender, religion, or other - and just focus on every candidate’s skills, efficiency, and freedom choice: “I never let prejudice stop me. I always acted to prove the opposite.”
Alqutob adds that one of the most common prejudice misconceptions about women is that their decision making process is led by emotion and values, whereas men act with logic - and logic is necessary in the world of high-tech. “From my experience that is just not true,” she states.
The ultra-orthodox project manager who helped flatten the curve
Mother of 4 and project manager at Aman Group, Ruthy Redlich, led the charge to flatten the curve, following the outbreak of the COVID pandemic in Israel. Though, she as well hit the prejudice wall: “Many times after being introduced as a project manager to a potential customer, they turn to my boss and ask if I can even handle such a massive and complexed project.” She says that by now, she’s “used” to it, but is heavily aware that religious women have to work harder and prove themselves to earn the customers’ trust.
Advancing professionally and raising a child with special needs
Adi Mor-Biran, Go-To-Market and Marketing leader at Microsoft Israel, is a poster for how to raise a child on the autistic spectrum, while managing a demanding career. “For example, I need to step away from work sometimes to take care of problems at my son’s school, which means I drop everything and go to him,” tells Mor-Biran, adding that what helped her handle the struggles was that she was open about her family: “Me being open about my job as a mother helped set expectations at work, and I found throughout my career that the companies I worked for were very understanding and flexible regarding my situation.” Mor-Biran adds that she has learned over the years to just “let go of the pressure” of being absolute in the professional field or while on home turf: “To currently navigate the home-work equilibrium, every once in a while I’ll have devote more attention to one of the fields, of course, depending on the situation.”
The girl who read programming books as bedtime stories
Similar to others on this list, also Techia Brukner, a mother of 4 working for the structured data team at eBay, didn’t grow up in what you would call a “tech hub”. Brukner was born and raised to a religious family living in the Old City of Jerusalem, “where the words high-tech and career are somewhat of an alien dialect,” she says. Despite being raised away from material “wants” and “needs”, her father would bring home various computers, cell phones, and gadgets to play with, even teaching himself how to code as a hobby back in the 80s.
The apple, it appears, didn’t fall far from the tree, and the young Brukner also got the “bug” and started reading programming books as bedtime stories. “Already in high school I decided I was going to get a degree in computer science - it was obvious to me that I would enjoy it, in addition to it being very practical, and offering job security. I met my significant other during my degree, then got married, and had my first child. After I had my second one at 22 years old, I started my career working for a startup,” she explains.
Tali Messing, Engineering Manager at Facebook Israel’s R&D center, also had to dance around the stereotypes of an Ultra-Orthodox woman in tech. However, unlike Brukner, Messing’s main goal was to “find a career that pays well, in order to support my family, and allow my husband to focus on studying Torah… The job was a means to an end, a way to build the house that I wanted. I planned on doing the minimum possible, definitely didn’t think I would have fun.” But that wasn’t what happened.
The one who actually encouraged Messing was her Rabbi, who pushed her to learn code after explaining to her that she should aspire to enjoy her job. “I always remember this, and use it when helping other engineers plan their career path.” Messing passed Facebook’s grueling hiring process and became the first Ultra-Orthodox woman working for the tech giant. And Messing, who gets home by 4pm every day, finishes her work after hours: “It’s ironic. While receiving judgement from my community that I was working too hard, I was also receiving criticism from coworkers and managers because I insisted on leaving early every day. They weren’t complaining about my output, but they did feel that I wasn't able to take on more responsibility because I don’t spend enough time at the office.” This experience, though, taught Messing that what’s important is that “I’m comfortable with my personal needs and goals, and that they align with what’s right for my husband and our family.” Messing also thanked her husband for helping her get to where she wanted to be: “He believed in me more than I believed in myself, and his support sparked me to keep advancing.”
“At our house, the workload is carried a bit differently”
Another person who can sympathize with the struggle of the Orthodox woman in tech is Ety Spiegel Hubara, co-founder of Orca Security. The rollercoaster lifestyle and totalitarian focus of an entrepreneur many times demands their significant others to compromise on many major family decisions. “At our house the workload is carried a bit differently, and I couldn’t have done it without my devoted partner.” She says that she picks up her girl from kindergarten “once a quarter” and tries to mix in work days at the office as well as at home. “I have no idea what to cook for guests on the weekend. I let my husband take care of that area,” Spiegel Hubara adds.
Brukner, from eBay, also tells about her challenges of managing a career while maintaining a home, but she explains that she has decided to dedicate a “weekly hour of quality-time” with each of her kids, during which they get to choose how to celebrate the day. “It definitely has a positive impact. On the other hand, the kids understand that sometimes mommy isn’t available and that they have to manage on their own or with their dad.”
“For many, Herzliya sounds far”
Let’s move for a second far from the tech hubs of Tel Aviv and its surroundings, and focus on a Jewish village that resides on a hill in the West Bank.
Rachel Shechtman was raised in California, where she says that she was “kicked out” of two high schools growing up. However, after finishing college, she decided to devote her life to the Torah. “When I was 21, I got married and moved to Israel all in the same week… Following our first year of marriage, we moved to a new community settlement, on a hill. It was a small community. I would work from my trailer atop of the hill, and I had 3 kids there. Everyday I learned about new tech companies. There were “so many of them, and each one was more exciting than the last,” she explains.
Shechtman transferred from Israeli legaltech startup LawGeex to take on the VP Sales Growth position at rising Israeli startup Namogoo. Talking about the whole experience of working from a religious community settlement on a hill, while raising 5 children, and commuting daily to Namogoo’s offices in the heart of Israel’s coastal tech hub, she says: “It’s truly another world and for many, Herzliya sounds far.”
The immigrant who interviewed remotely without knowing a word of Hebrew
Ilana Kersner also faced many challenges when immigrating to a new country, where she wasn’t familiar with the local language. At the beginning of 2020, Kersner planned her move to Israel, but then COVID struck. However, not even a global pandemic could halt Kersner's will to fulfill her dream, and interviewed remotely for a product marketing manager position at Spot by NetApp. According to Kersner, It’s pretty common for people to doubt her technological know-how: “People just don’t expect the girl from marketing to know what Kubernetes is, or understand the difference between EKS, ECS, or EC2… I would sit in on meetings with men, and when they would start getting technical, they’d stop and say ‘Ilana, if you don’t understand, then stop us, and we’ll explain.’ Of course, most of the time I understood exactly what they were talking about.”
Kersner was able to win the company over even without knowing Hebrew or ever meeting her managers and interviewers face-to-face. It was only this last August that Kersner was able to complete her move to Israel and begin working from her apartment - until COVID restrictions are lifted.
“Women shouldn’t feel insecure walking into a room where they are the only woman”
Mishela Rabkin, an industrial designer at Percepto, also works in an industry with minimal representation of her gender. She chose the industry over a design studio because of her interest in industrial design, and the hands-on work with drones. However, she notes that her challenges aren’t all that different from her colleagues: “Women shouldn’t feel insecure walking into a room where they are the only woman,” nevertheless, Mishela believes that the biggest barrier blocking more women in tech starts at the younger ages, and is dependant mostly on education: “Many shy away because the industry is more manly. The Israeli education system and military need to ‘fight’ for the young girls and women, and show them that the tech door is wide open for them as well. Rabkin tells that her career path started as a child, with 2 parents working full time as engineers while maintaining a household. “For me it was natural. However, in many other households this was not the case. Therefore, there is a need to push young girls in that direction during their extra curricular activity outside of the home,” she states.
Rabkin, who majored in mathematics and chemistry, served as an electronics technician in the IDF’s Unit 81. Later in her career, she worked at Percepto’s drone workshop “a lone woman among a team of engineers and technicians,” until she finished her industrial design studies, when she took design lead for Percepto.
Spot’s Kersner also believes that young girls should be more exposed to technical professions, but calls on tech companies to start hiring both men and women without computer science degrees: “There are so many self-learning developers and engineers out there. These days, tech is being developed at record pace, meaning there are always new things to learn, and companies need people who adapt quickly and don’t stop learning. Not something that a degree in computer science necessarily provides.”
"Closing the gender gaps"
Amalia Avramov, Group President at Amdocs, thinks the women already in tech should help influence the women looking in: “I’m a big believer that it’s our responsibility, the women who already ‘made the leap’, to share our stories and expose many women to new opportunities. At the same time, just like the way we develop code, we must continue developing programs and guidance targeted at closing the gender gaps, making reality better for all of us.” Alqutob, from Intel, also argues that women need to “display the amazing work done by women, support them, and inspire others as examples -- to help break the circle of prejudice, and prove that in this world women and men can do the same work equally.”