Haredi women, the start-up nation’s abysmally underpaid backbone

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Israeli women work in programming, software development and other relatively low-skill high-tech jobs. They’re often very badly paid, and deeply reluctant to do anything about it

Ultra-Orthodox women on the job at a high-tech company in Modiin Illit (Abir Sultan/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox women on the job at a high-tech company in Modiin Illit (Abir Sultan/Flash90)

While her mother’s generation worked as teachers, Michal Zernowitzky has for the past 14 years “pioneered” into the future of female Haredi employment — in Israel’s booming high-tech sector. One of the first Haredi women to graduate with a BA in computer technology, she currently works as an outsourced programmer, which she describes as “hard-core, factory-like work, and definitely not for everyone,” consisting of long hours and often monotonous assignments.

But Zernowitzky has been lucky to find a job that pays fair wages and has helped her to avoid the crippling debt prevalent throughout her Haredi community, where many of her neighbors work in the high-tech sector but receive salaries far below standards acceptable to secular Israelis.

While thousands of Haredi women work in high tech, with numbers only expected to grow, no official figures exist that document the severity of a widely acknowledged Haredi-secular wage gap common in companies like Matrix. At its offices in Modiin Illit and Beit Shemesh, more than 700 Haredi women are employed in the software development and quality assurance departments, and are described in an article published on the company’s website as a “high quality workforce appealing to cost-conscious consumers, in comparison to the cost of personnel in central Israel.”

Knesset Ethics Committee chairman MK Yitzhak Vaknin of Shas (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
MK Yitzhak Vaknin of Shas (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Shas Knesset Member Yitzhak Vaknin argued in an address to the Knesset Finance Committee last month that though “Haredis have an enormous desire to work, they are the most deprived population.” He referred to the case of his daughter, a Matrix employee, who earns the universal “Haredi salary” of 5,600 shekels (about $1,500) a month, in comparison to the 8,800 shekels (about $2,300) earned by her secular female colleagues. Such sums are configured without recognizing variant levels of professionalism or education, he said.

Wage discrimination suffered by Haredi women reflects wider pay inequity in the sector at large. Men earn on average 15,800 NIS (about $4,100), whereas women earn 8,771 NIS (about $2,300), and account for only about one-third of the managerial positions, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.

However, the overall wage gap — in which Haredi women earn a glaring 40 percent less than their male and female secular counterparts — is a sensitive issue among the community. Many fear that standing up for their right to equal pay for equal work could be interpreted as a betrayal of modesty or to the prioritization of their family.

Government initiatives have placed Haredi women in the lowest paying jobs, including in the high-tech sector, that have done little to help them overcome enduring states of poverty, says Racheli Ibenboim

Worse, many believe that such assertiveness could earn them a scarlet letter of being “modern” or “careerist,” explains Zernowitzky.

“In the Haredi world, work is not an ethic,” she says, adding that many of the Haredi women who work for minimum wage are either unaware that they are perceived as a local alternative to the cheap outsourcing centers in India, or face a cultural dilemma in confronting the issue.

Over the past decade, Haredi women have begun to fill the shortages in programming, software development and other low-skill positions in the lowest tiers of these companies. Even in companies known for wage discrimination, many say that they still enjoy the steady paychecks and flexible hours. Because their work revolves around deadlines — not in-office hours — they accommodate work to their already busy schedules as wives and mothers, starting their days in the early morning so that they can leave in time for the afternoon car pool and then complete assignments from their home computer after tucking the children into bed.

Haredi women in high tech represent the critical yet also largely invisible backbone of the “start-up nation.” Israel boasts more start-ups per capita than any other nation, most famously with millennial, highly creative and mostly male-led entrepreneurial companies like Waze, the GPS-based navigation app, which sold its rights to Google for approximately $1 billion in 2013.

Even among lesser-known companies, though, high-tech jobs are among the most remunerative in Israel, employing more than 280,000 people and offering roughly double the average national salary, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.

Racheli Ibenboim (Courtesy)
Racheli Ibenboim (Courtesy)

But while the government boasts high numbers of employment among Haredi women (79%), official initiatives have placed them in the lowest-paying jobs, including in the high-tech sector, that have done little to help them overcome enduring states of poverty, says Racheli Ibenboim, a former politician who has worked to improve employment opportunities for Haredi women.

Lacking access to the human capital networks and entrepreneurial training that many of their colleagues received through the army’s various high-tech units, Haredi women face the additional challenge of cultural stigma in applying for jobs in a secular-dominated field.

“The employers are afraid of the Haredim and they think they will destroy the dynamics of the group, will stop to pray, will have a baby every year,” says Ibenboim.

The complications are practically and financially real, explains Oran Singer, who owns a high-tech company in Tel Aviv that outsources its low-skill programming to Haredi women. In addition to taking maternity leave roughly once a year, most married employees are also unavailable late at night or on Saturdays, the Sabbath, when an international client might need their services. More fundamentally, having had less exposure to math, English or science throughout their education in religious schools presents some challenges in grasping the work.

Oran Singer (Roni Kaufman)
Oran Singer (Roni Kaufman)

But, ultimately, employing Haredi women makes good business sense. They exhibit qualities such as commitment to the company, an eagerness to learn, and a strong camaraderie that drives them to help their coworkers overcome difficulties, all of which are rare in the volatile and individualistic high-tech world, says Singer.

“They are extremely trustworthy and have a very high work ethic. I believe this comes from understanding the economic reality that they’re in, which makes them truly appreciate the income,” he explains.

And while women have only in recent years begun to grapple with the question of demanding their worth in the workplace, a surge of Haredi female entrepreneurs have also been creating real solutions to this end in specialized academic institutes like the Strauss Campus, just a stone’s throw from the conservative Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim.

Rivka Yeruslavsky, the director of the women’s section of the campus, is expecting a class of 500 students in the fall semester — up from an original 37 in 2013 — who will major in subjects like computer science and biotechnology, and learn to market themselves for high-level jobs in high tech and elsewhere.

Their curriculum includes workshops to help them polish their resumes, as well as internships in labs, in which they receive firsthand exposure to their field in addition to securing recommendation letters for future employers.

While some in the community continue to condemn the employment of women in the secular high-tech world as a sacrifice of traditional values, Yeruslavsky says that many have come to see the Strauss Campus as the best of a number of bad options, since it maintains gender-segregation and incorporates religious learning.

“The purpose of the institute is to allow women to have an income — so that their families can live in dignity,” Yeruslavsky tells me as she cooks dinner following a hectic day of work. “I think that this new generation is slowly coming to understand that women can definitely be Haredi, with all that this culture demands, while also being assertive in their skills and sense of worth.”

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