IDF targets women for tech as Israel feels worker pinch

‘If half of Israel’s population is women, we should see that reflected in our tech units,’ but we don’t, says female commander of elite communications corps’ prep course

Shoshanna Solomon was The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Women commanders in the IDF C4I programmers course: (from right to left) Lt. Rotem Falach, Lt. Noi Shaki, Lt. Savyon Levy, Lt. Lior Dariel (Courtesy: IDF)
Women commanders in the IDF C4I programmers course: (from right to left) Lt. Rotem Falach, Lt. Noi Shaki, Lt. Savyon Levy, Lt. Lior Dariel (Courtesy: IDF)

Rotem Falach and Lior Dariel, both 24, sit together behind a desk in their small office at an army base in Ramat Gan. Their hair is tied in tight ponytails and their green army uniforms are perfectly ironed.

The two Israel Defense Forces lieutenants have another three to four months of duty after having served some six years in the IDF’s elite tech C4I communications corps, where today they are commanders of the training course for new recruits.

They are planning to travel once they leave the army, to shrug off the shackles of duty. Afterward they’ll get a job at a high tech company. They lay out their plans without hesitation. Firms are already trying to recruit them “all the time,” they say. They already have a computer science degree, which they got as part of their army service.

Falach and Dariel are two of the four female commanders — out of a total of five commanders — who train new recruits for IDF’s C4I corps. This is the first year that the course commanders are mostly women, which both Falach and Dariel see as an achievement because women still tend to stay away from the tech units in the army.

 Cadets in the IDF programmers course. About one third are women (Courtesy: IDF)
Cadets in the IDF programmers course. About one third are women (Courtesy: IDF)

“There is a rise of women in the tech units in the army, but it is minor,” said Falach, who as part of her army service, together with Dariel, also meets high school students to convince them to apply for the corps. “If half of the population in Israel is women, then we should see that reflected in our tech units. But that is not the case.”

Today some 30 percent of the C4I programmers’ course Falach and Dariel teach is made up of women — up from 25% some 10 years ago, but still well below the levels the army would like to see.

“Students are deterred by the long period of service and the long hours in front of the computer,” Dariel said, adding that soldiers work some 14 hours a day in the intensive training course and then spend all of their time in front of computers during their service. “Today, however, many more want to enter the high-tech field, so it could be we’ll be able to recruit more women going forward. We see that once women join our courses, the work is not harder for them than for the men.”

Data provided by the IDF shows that 23 percent of female soldiers in compulsory service are in mechanical support positions; 18 percent of the soldiers in the engineering academic program are women; 12 percent of soldiers in compulsory service serve in cyber positions; and 27 percent of the army’s computer programmers are women.

For C4I, there are no prerequisites for acceptance, said a C4I officer in charge of the recruitment of soldiers to the corps. The officer could not be identified by name in accordance with IDF rules. Higher math and computer studies are a plus, but “we look for the cognitive abilities of the applicants, how they analyze things, their ability to think things through, with logic,” the officer, also a woman, said. The army teaches them everything from scratch. Thinking outside the box, creativity and the ability to work in a team are factors recruiters are looking for, she said.

Cadets in the IDF C4I programmers course. Recruiters seek logical, out of box thinking (Courtesy: IDF)
Cadets in the IDF C4I programmers course. Recruiters seek logical, out-of-the-box thinking (Courtesy IDF)

Applicants that get accepted do the half-year preparatory course — the one currently commanded by Falach and Dariel — and then an additional 5.3 years of service.

Targeting women as a national mission

Increasing the number of women to work in technology is not just a military mission. It is a mission that Israel must embrace, as its tech sector faces a shortage of some 10,000 engineers and programmers in the coming decade.

Drawing more women into the game is a top priority for the Israel Innovation Authority, which is responsible for the country’s innovation policy. “We lose them (women) along the whole front — at high schools, universities, the workplace and at high-level jobs in the workplace…. This is unacceptable,” Israel’s chief scientist at the Ministry of Economy and Industry Avi Hasson said in an interview with The Times of Israel in December.

Israel’s high-tech industry, which has been a key engine in fueling the nation’s economy, is facing a shortage of skilled workers that is causing it to lose steam. The Finance Ministry warned in February that Israel’s high-tech sector has already ceased to be the nation’s growth engine as fewer students graduate with science degrees.

In a June report, Hasson said immediate action was needed by the government, blaming the shortfall on students who shy away from studying computer science, math and statistics. Israel must tap into different segments of the population, like the ultra-Orthodox, the Arabs and women, to be able to make up for the shortfall, Hasson said.

Women account for 26% of the some 140,000 people who work in R&D in Israel, or some 36,000 women, according to the Innovation Authority data. And whereas half of the high school students who complete their matriculation in the highest levels of maths are women, just one third of them go on to tech and science studies at universities — in the fields of computer sciences, electric and electronic engineering or other similar fields, compared with 66% of boys.

Cadets in the IDF's C4I programmers course. Most are still men (Courtesy: IDF)
Cadets in the IDF’s C4I programmers course. Most are still men (Courtesy: IDF)

“This is where a great loss is,” said Noa Ecker, head of policy design at the Innnovation Authority.

The main obstacles, according to a study by Israel’s National Economic Council, are gender stereotyping, an unreceptive environment in science classes, a low self-image regarding capabilities, a lack of knowledge about possibilities, a lack of role models and the need to balance work and private life.

“We are aware of the issue and are thinking of ways to encourage women to enter the high-tech industry,” Ecker said.

Women in Israel start moving away from scientific studies as early as elementary school, the Taub Center’s State of the Nation Report 2016 said. The share of female students in the technology fields has risen slightly over the years, but it remains low at only around 20 percent to 30 percent.

“When we meet female students we tell them they should not be afraid,” said the IDF’s Falach. “There is no reason for this imbalance in the army between men and women in the tech jobs. Women can do, and do the job, as well as the male soldiers we train. We try to explain this to the students we meet and encourage them to break away from the cultural stereotypes. They are as talented as the men we train. It is all a frame of mind.”

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