As the world marked International Women’s Day on Tuesday, government ministries and Knesset members are turning the spotlight on Arab women’s participation in the Israeli workforce as an effective way to empower the most impoverished sector of society.
Just 22 percent of Arab women of employment age are working, compared with 58% of Jewish women, according to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. This lack of employment is one of the major reasons why 53% of Arab Israeli Arabs live below the poverty line, as reported in the latest poverty report from the National Insurance Institute.
Arab women’s lack of involvement in the workforce stems from a number of different cultural and institutional challenges, including language barriers, rural isolation, lack of educational opportunities, and social mores that encourage them to stay home to care for their children.
“One of the major reasons for the lack of Arab women’s employment is their limited access to the main labor market — both a lack of transportation as well as unawareness of opportunities beyond the local market,” explained Reem Zoabi Abu Ishak, the director of Rayan Nazareth Employment Center, which is funded by the Economy Ministry and the Joint Distribution Committee.
Rayan Nazareth is one of 20 centers dedicated to vocational training and employment counseling for the Arab sector. Approximately 70% of Rayan Nazareth’s clients are women.
Despite the Economy Ministry’s NIS 220 million ($56 million) investment in these employment centers, there are a number of obstacles that make it difficult for Arab women to enter the workforce.
In Nazareth, only 52% of students graduate from high school with a matriculation certification, said Abu Ishak. “They have inadequate Hebrew, and women in particular face more obstacles due to women’s traditional roles in society,” she said.
There should be a holistic approach to getting women into the workforce, experts say.
Part of the effort must be directed to finding solutions for transportation for women coming from remote areas, along with affordable childcare services.
The other part must be directed toward the Israeli labor market, to address the deep discrimination directed at Arabs, and women in particular.
“For example, we need to talk to companies so that they remove the army service requirement for their employees,” saif Yasir Hujeirat, the CEO of Al-Fanar, which oversees the Rayan Centers and other vocational and employment initiatives for Arab workers.
Arab Israelis are not required to serve in the army, and few perform National Service. Their younger age when they enter the workforce, compared with Israeli counterparts who have served in the army and traveled abroad, also puts them at a disadvantage in terms of experience.
Finding diplomas that lead to jobs
One of the difficulties is learning to match the vocational training with labor market needs. Many Arab women who do go to university go for degrees in education, because of the flexible hours and possibility of working close to home in that field.
“The market for teachers is totally stuffed,” said Hujeirat. “But why should women who are interested in biotechnology, chemistry, or engineering become teachers? They have a much higher probability of getting jobs if they work as chemists or engineers.”
“We also want to make sure they are entering higher quality work, and that we’re promoting more Arab managers,” he added.
“There is a very low percentage of Arabs in management positions, so we are trying to help people to learn to get promoted, because less than one in 300 of all managers in Israel are Arab,” said Abu Ishak.
Jobs that are a mouse-click away
One major emphasis is to encourage Arab women to enter the high-tech sector, since that sector is growing quickly, pays higher wages, and is less dependent on physical location. On Monday, the Knesset’s Committee for the Advancement of Women and Gender Equality met with representatives of she-codes (an Israeli women’s tech promotion group), women’s rights activists, and high-tech leaders to discuss ways to bring more women into the sector. She-codes hopes to achieve a 50/50 gender balance in the next decade, and this will only be possible with the involvement of Arab women. But it is an uphill battle.
The Central Bureau of Statistics reported in 2013 that out of approximately 284,500 people working in high-tech in Israel, only 1.3% were Arab. And just 1,700 of the high-tech workers in Israel are Arab women (less than half a percentage of all high-tech workers).
The Economy Ministry has dedicated a NIS 10 million ($2.55 million) budget over the next three years to integrating 10,000 male and female Arab high-tech workers into the workforce, though that will still be a long way from proportional Arab representation.
Tsofen, a joint Jewish-Arab organization promoting high-tech education and placement, partnered with the Economic Ministry to implement this plan.
“Now there are more than 15 high-tech companies in Nazareth employing 700 people, up from one company and 30 employees in 2008,” said Paz Hirschmann, a co-CEO of Tsofen.
“About 25% of workers in high-tech in Nazareth are Arab women, which is about the same percentage of Israeli women in high-tech,” he said. He also added that in an unusual twist, 100 Jewish computer engineers are commuting to Nazareth for work, rather than Arab workers commuting to Jewish cities. The challenge in high-tech, as in other labor markets, is trying to create opportunities for women to advance to managerial positions, rather than getting stuck on the bottom rung of tech companies.
“Bringing high-tech to the Arab cities will increase the percentage of Arab women in high-tech,” Hirschmann said. “In [Arab] high schools, 55% of those who are studying technology fields in high school are women, and their grades are significantly better than Jewish male students. But in universities, only 10% of students in exact sciences and high-tech are Arab women. Between high school and university there’s a big decrease. We believe if we bring high-tech into Arab cities it will reverse this trend.”
MK Aida Touma-Sliman (Joint List), the head of the Committee for the Advancement of Women and Gender Equality, placed the blame on the Education Ministry during Monday’s Knesset discussion about the lack of Arab women in high-tech.
“The main obstacle we need to address is the female students finishing high school who have better grades than the male students, but then ‘disappear’ and do not enter into academic fields that lead towards high-tech,” she said. “This is the role of the Education Ministry; you cannot rely on volunteer organizations. The Education Ministry talks about the importance of studying math, and here is a population that is studying but is not getting assistance to continue.”
She said the committee will appeal to the Education Ministry for additional programs and support.
‘Bringing Tel Aviv to Nazareth’
“Women pursue non-tech fields because they want jobs near their residence,” said Hans Shakur, who has a mobile services tech company in Nazareth. Shakur also runs the networking and mentoring platform Nazareth Mobile Mondays, which has a network of 2,000 Nazareth-area high-tech workers for weekly events and meet-ups.
“It’s about bringing Tel Aviv to Nazareth,” said Shakur. “It’s about bringing the high-tech bubble here, not bringing Nazareth to Tel Aviv. We need more meet-ups, more connections with advanced high-tech ecosystem in Israel, to connect them to global ecosystem and foster entrepreneurship.”
This challenge of breaking into a closed “high-tech ecosystem” is especially relevant for Arab workers, who don’t have the same connections as their Israeli counterparts. One of the major networking opportunities for people in high-tech is the army’s 8200 intelligence unit, which attracts computer science nerds and programmers. On March 7, the Nazareth Business Incubator Center and the 8200 Alumni group launched a joint program called Hybrid to encourage start-ups in the Arab sector, with networking assistance from 8200 graduates.
“The Nazareth [high-tech] ecosystem is considered sexy but risky,” explained Fadi Swidan, the director of the Nazareth Business Incubator Center, which has courses as well as accelerators for start-ups. “They are not ready to invest in your startups because we’re not part of the network they know in Tel Aviv.”
Encouraging Arab startups is essential to bringing more high-tech jobs into Arab cities, and also to increasing the number of companies.
People at Tsofen and Rayan are also wary of replicating some of the issues with initiatives to encourage ultra-Orthodox women into the workforce. Special call centers built near Haredi cities that employed only women were initially celebrated as enabling Haredi women to work in environments that met their religious needs. But this also created situations where employers could take advantage of the lack of other opportunities for these women and pay them lower wages.
Depressed wages are also a major issue in the Arab community. The Joint List is rolling out a women’s empowerment program during the week of March 8 to inform women of their employment rights, including minimum wage, overtime, termination, and maternity leave.
“The problem is that four years ago, the state decided to make a big push to employ Arab women and Haredi women,” said Yudit Ilany, a parliamentary aide to MK Hanin Zoabi (Joint List). “The state is celebrating that women are entering into the workforce, but we see women in Nazareth get seven or 13 shekels an hour (about $1.75-3.25).”
The Joint List’s empowerment project focuses on increasing the quality of Arab women’s employment in addition to quantity. It deployed lawyers and social workers on March 8 at Balad offices in Sakhnin and Umm al-Fahm to answer questions from women and go over pay stubs. The main message is that minimum wage for all workers in Israel is NIS 25 per hour ($6.25), or NIS 4,640 per month ($1,160) for full-time work.
“The employers know there’s no enforcement and there’s discrimination against Arab women, which makes it hard to get another job, and so they’re taking advantage of these women,” said Ilany, who helped design the empowerment program for International Women’s Day. Part of the program is to make available wallet-sized brochures that inform women of their rights as employees, including the legal minimum wage, and when and how overtime must be paid, two of the biggest areas where women are missing out in their salaries.
A high-tech mother’s tale
Despite all of the noise surrounding the issue on International Women’s Day, for 28-year-old Ahlam Mousa, March 8 will just be another day at the office. The mother of two from a village near Karmiel has worked in customer solutions for the past five years at Galil Software, a software and technology firm in Nazareth.
“They need to start in school, to encourage girls, and not let mom and dad always decide that they want her to be a teacher,” said Mousa. “They should encourage her to learn the things she loves, because if she learns teaching and doesn’t like it she won’t last.”
Still, Mousa said her career in high-tech is not a common one for her friends from home. Those who continued their educations became teachers, doctors, and lawyers, and many stayed local. Few went to work in high-tech. “We don’t have a lot of companies where I’m from,” she said.
Mousa studied biology at the Technion institute in Haifa and felt a lot of pressure to go into medicine. But she found the Tsofen program and decided to concentrate on high-tech instead.
The hardest part, she said, is the hours. Public transportation from her village is sparse and it takes her one to two hours in each direction. Combined with the 9-hour work day, she’s out of the house for 12-13 hours. It’s only possible for her to keep the job because she has the full support of her family. Her mother watches the two children, ages 8 months and 3 years, during the day. Her husband works as a tax attorney in the same village, sohe does not have a commute. Without their support, this career would be impossible, she said.
But she feels it’s important for women, and Arab women especially, to work, despite the cultural and logistical challenges, for themselves and for the next generation.
“When you go out to work, you are adding something good for the kids and the atmosphere of the house,” said Mousa. “When you go to work, you are able to develop yourself and the society.”