Israeli High-tech Women Say Sexual Harassment Plaguing Industry

‘We know about it in the army and the police, but high-tech is perceived as being clean,’ says Rape Crisis Center representative

A woman using a laptop Apple computer.
Tamar Gozansky

While sexual harassment scandals have recently hounded Silicon Valley companies like Uber, 500 Startups and Binary Capital, women in the Israeli high-tech industry seem to have suffered more silently.

“When I managed to close deals, they told me that I succeeded because I was a woman with tits, and they love girls like me,” Tamar (not her real name), a 32-year-old former high-tech executive told TheMarker. “If I failed to close deals, they told me it was because I was a woman and didn’t understand business. They belittled me. I felt that it didn’t matter if I did things well or poorly. Everything came back to me being a woman, and a young woman at that.”

Her recollection provides a glimpse of the experience that women go through in Israel’s male-dominated high-tech industry. TheMarker has spoken to numerous female entrepreneurs and executives in the industry, who discuss the physical and verbal abuse they have suffered on a day-to-day basis. The present a picture of a work environment that is hostile toward and difficult for women, who comprise 35% of the high-tech workforce and but less than a quarter of core technology positions.

“High-tech is an area where sexual harassment has flown under the radar screen,” says attorney Ifat Belfer, director of the department for sexual harassment affairs at The Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel. “We know it happens in the army, in the police and in the public sector, but high-tech is perceived as being clean.”

However, Belfer says, some characteristics of the high-tech industry actually make it more fertile ground for sexual harassment than in other fields. “Organizations in high-tech are essentially masculine. It is mostly a young population, which is at work for extended hours and has work trips abroad,” she says. “People in startups can work into the night and then go out for a beer, and in the middle of the day leave for a long afternoon break. There is a blurring of the lines on trips abroad, in going out together and in the long hours. It is a blurring of the lines that can lead to sexual harassment.”

She explains, “The debate about sexual harassment in workplaces in general and in high-tech specifically does not rely on hard data and statistics, simply because there isn’t any such information.” She notes, “Most incidents go unreported.”

Belfer says there is less reporting of harassment in high-tech because women are in positions where they are making good money, much more than in just about any other sector, and they have the most to lose. “These are educated women who understand that the criminal and civil judicial track will not give them an answer,” she says. “It is the mark of Cain, and if the incident gets published, it will be hard for them to fit into the labor market down the line.”

Shying away from victimhood

Another reason for underreporting in the industry is the type of harassment that takes place. Such behavior is perceived as part of the norm, and high-tech women are perceived as being strong and able to stand on their own.

“The situation in high-tech is more complicated. When we see someone takes a cleaning lady aside and committing an indecent act against her, it’s crystal clear,” says attorney Maya Zahor, who specializes in sexual harassment cases in the workplace. “In contrast we see educated women in high-tech, and the judge also expects them to say ‘no’ and to stand up for their rights.

“These women are not thrilled about taking the position of the victim and complaining,” Zahor continues. “In practice, anyone who complains does so only after she has already given up in her mind on her place of work. Therefore, it is impossible to know how much harassment goes on. It depends on how burning an issue it is to the woman harassed to complain, and how prepared she is to give up on her job in order not to work with the harasser.”

Tamar says: “The discourse in startups is very masculine. Anyone caught up in the discourse has to adapt herself to be ‘one of the guys.’ If they talk about sexy girls and getting laid, you have to keep silent, join the conversation or not interrupt. And then you are like a ‘guy,’ you are not ‘one of those girls.’ You need to shrink.’”

Belfer adds: “It could be that high-tech today is like the army 40 years ago. It’s an area worth researching.”

The full version of this article in Hebrew will be published Friday in TheMarker Week.