Western Digital Takes Leap of Faith with Israeli Jewish Ultra-Orthodox Female Coders
A new initiative seeks to get Orthodox coders into high-paying tech jobs. One problem: searching for engineering solutions on a Kosher internet
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Around 1,000 ultra-Orthodox women complete associate software engineering programs in Orthodox seminars in Israel each year, and few hundred find employment in the local tech industry through specialized employment agencies. Jobs outsourced through the agencies are most often low-level, mainly development and quality-assurance services, providing the women with salaries of around NIS 5,000 (around $1,350), below the minimum monthly wage in Israel, and with virtually no promotion opportunities. According to government data, only 0.4% of tech high earners in Israel are Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox women.
It's a straightforward compromise. The women receive a tailored work environment, that enables them to observe rabbinical edicts; the employers get grunt workers at bargain prices.But some players in the market are trying to break the glass ceiling and get ultra-Orthodox women, and the ultra-Orthodox sector in general, into the local industry on a more equal footing.
KamaTech, a nonprofit organization established to champion the cause, has just concluded a program that saw 18 women hired as regular employees at a local outpost of a technology multinational in central Israel. Six were hired after a skills-assessment process, and 12 after a targeted three-month-long bootcamp program.
Six were hired after a skills-assessment process, and 12 after a targeted three-month-long bootcamp program.The process is far from straightforward. Only one CEO has so far agreed to pick up the gauntlet and try to hire these women as regular employees: Western Digital's Israeli site manager Shahar Bar-or. The company employs some 1,000 people in the country across three research and development centers. The initiative was born out of need, as a way to address a talent shortage, Bar-Or said in an interview with Calcalist last week.
Originally intended for engineers with academic degrees wishing to add domain-specific knowledge that can land them a job at Western Digital, the bootcamp program was later tailored specifically for the ultra-Orthodox coders: Western Digital already canvassed universities for potential employees, Bar-Or said, but a meeting with KamaTech co-founder Moshe Friedman made the company take a leap of faith.
Bar-Or considers the seemingly onerous process a basic aspect of the need to diversify. "We have no intention of changing the beliefs and lifestyle of our employees," he explained. "When employees asked us for soy milk and scooter parking spaces we happily obliged. If we can find the necessary talents among ultra-Orthodox women, we'll make the necessary adjustments."Bar-Or said he noticed the heads of the seminars were worried about the non-homogenous work environment, and its possible effects on the employees' ability to maintain and hold on to an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle. "It's clear to me that if they change their lifestyle it will be associated with us, and the whole project will break apart," he said. Roth echoes the sentiment. “If a seminar graduate is recruited by a tech company, and as a result alters her lifestyle, for us that is not a success, but a failure,” she said. The rabbis, on their part, accepted that some compromises will have to be made, such as mixed-gender meetings, secular male supervisors, and the need for employees to be able to work with anyone regardless of gender or religious leanings. "They acquiesced happily. We had many worries but they were proved unfounded," Bar-Or said.
While Friedman acknowledges that the employment framework was specifically tailored to Western Digital, and would potentially need to be redressed for each tech company wishing to join the initiative, he thinks the potential problems would not be significantly different. “Most companies have a similar DNA,” he said."None of the women or the rabbis we met with asked us to change the management style of the company," Bar-Or concluded. "You can always either try to pile up hurdles, or opt for tolerance. In my opinion, that's the kind of maturity that's needed when considering employment diversity. Not everyone has to conform themselves to the same DNA."