The British Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Patricia Hewitt, who is also in charge of women's affairs, last week announced an interesting competition. All girls between 11 and 15 were invited to design their own Web site devoted to one of Britain's pop stars. The 250 girls whose sites were deemed best would be invited to mass pajama parties to be held in March in the British Museum of Science. The goal of this strange competition is important: to interest the country's girls in the world of computers and the Internet and ultimately to put an end to the total male dominance in the British computer industry.
The goal proposed by Hewitt is undoubtedly the most justified there can be, but the method she chose to achieve it is, how to put it, not the best. The Web site that was created for the competition featured shades of pink, as befits girls, of course. To encourage diversity, the site recommended only seven pop stars (male and female). Anyone who didn't find their favorite musical star on the list, or anyone who thinks there are worthier goals for creating Web sites, will have to wait for the next contest.
The upshot is that even though the competition is bent on fighting stereotypes that inhibit women from entering the computer industry, it is, in effect, doing exactly the opposite. However, the basic assumptions of the contest are perfectly correct - and they are equally applicable in Israel.
The big high-tech bubble attracted thousands of young people. A survey conducted by the Manufacturers Association in October 1999 noted the improvement that occurred at management level, too, during the boom period: between 1996 and 1999, the number of women managers in the Israeli high-tech industry increased by a factor of 2.5, so that in 1999 some 20 percent of the managers in the industry were women.
It's not clear what criteria the survey used to define "manager," but three years after its findings were published, it can safely be said that the road to equality in the high-tech industry remains very long. Even though the number of female students in the departments of computer sciences is constantly increasing, women still find the way to the post of CEO blocked. There is not one woman among the directors of the local companies that represent major American firms - Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, HP, Sun Systems, CA, Intel and Cisco. Leading Israeli firms - Check Point, Mercury, Ness Technologies, Walla!, Y-Net, Magic, Aladdin and dozens of other start-ups - have men as their CEOs. One of the few exceptions is the CEO of the Internet service provider Netvision, Ravit Barniv. However, in this case, too, it is the vice-presidents - the men - who communicate with the public.
The situation in the United States is no better. Women run only nine of the thousand biggest companies in America. The number of women who hold management positions in the technology companies in the U.S. can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The fact that there is only one black-American CEO in these companies - John Thompson, of the information protection firm Symantec, shows that the problem runs very deep and is very basic, and has to do with recoil from those who are different and the tendency to self-replication.
The high-tech industry, large as it may be, is ultimately run by a small group of people. In Israel the situation is even more extreme and flagrant. The CEO founded the company in partnership with the vice-president, and both of them served in an elite army unit.
So, in addition to ostensibly objective limitations, such as the need to work late hours, which places in doubt the ability of women, especially the mothers among them, to hold senior positions in high-tech, women are also adversely affected by the natural tendency of the manager to promote those who resemble him.
As natural as all this may sound, there is no justification at all for discrimination at the managerial pyramid of companies in the Israeli high-tech industry. The attorney general has stated that the principle of commensurate representation obliges an "active search for suitable female candidates" for director-general positions in the public sector. In this case, the procedure in the public service (even though it is, in fact, not applied in most cases) needs to become the model for the private sector. So, even if a pink-background competition to design a Web site in honor of Sarit Hadad is not such a great idea, the promotion of female vice-presidents to CEO in an industry that claims to pursue the principles of equality, creativity and progress could well be a concept that will prove itself.
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