In Israel's Startup Nation, Glass Ceiling Is Double Thick

If women have made their presence felt in more traditional areas of the economy, they’re conspicuously absent from leadership positions in high-tech, where Israel of course is at the cutting edge of innovation.

Israeli high-tech workers. Rare is the Ethiopian-Israeli among them.
Alon Ron

Israeli high-tech is breaking records in 2015, with 60 deals worth $6 billion, but the celebration is largely for men.

In recent years, women have captured some of the economy’s most influential roles; even a partial list is impressive: former Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, Bank of Israel Governor Karnit Flug, former Finance Ministry Director General Yael Andorn, Apax Partners head Zehavit Cohen, and a host of bank chief executives.

But while women are stronger in more conservative areas of the economy, they’re conspicuously absent from leadership positions in high-tech, where Israel of course is at the cutting edge of innovation.

The low number of female entrepreneurs or chief executives in high-tech is not unique to Israel. Women account for under 5% of chief executives, and even in Silicon Valley women are a rare sight in startups and venture capital funds.

The situation is so serious that U.S. tech giant Intel recently set up a special venture capital arm to sink $125 million into companies to be launched. Women would lead them both in the United States and abroad, including in Israel.

Eyal Toueg

Some may say there’s a lack of female high-tech entrepreneurs because women are simply less suited, but this isn't the case, according to Prof. Dafna Kariv, the head of the strategy and development department at Rishon Letzion’s College of Management.

“All the research shows that women have a smarter strategic view than men,” says Kariv, the author of a book on woman entrepreneurs.

“Female management ability is special and interesting — it draws expertise from maternal management and it’s tied to multitasking and a long-term view over immediate gratification. Still, women almost never obtain management roles in high-tech companies because the organizational culture strangles them.”

Wojcicki is not enough

Kariv spoke to TheMarker at Google’s campus in Tel Aviv. At that company, just one woman, Susan Wojcicki, sits alongside 11 men on the management board. Coincidentally or not, Wojcicki, the chief executive of YouTube, is the sister-in-law of one of Google’s founders, Sergey Brin.

“A female entrepreneur is a master unto herself when it comes to hours, management and time, and it’s very convenient for women — especially for motherhood. It’s easier for a female entrepreneur to raise a family. Female entrepreneurs also let women flourish in different directions; they let talented women complain that at their job there's a glass ceiling,” Kariv says.

“Many women compromise on their professional ability so they can take their children to preschool. There are so many women with PhDs who are overqualified for their jobs. In the world of entrepreneurship, they not only can empower their professional side, they can help the world.”

According to Kariv, there are very few women in Israeli high-tech because female entrepreneurs work in more traditional sectors like apparel, fashion and lifestyle.

“These three sectors produce less money and less growth,” she says. “Second, the startup world is very male, and it simply deters women. Statistics show that even if the idea is the woman’s she’ll take a man with her.”

Also, there’s a disconnect between reality and women’s perception of themselves.

“On the one hand, women don’t rely on themselves in financial matters — what the money goes to, why the money is needed, how much more money is needed, which experts to take on board. Women don’t make these decisions,” Kariv says.

On the other hand, women get better grades than men at university — even in finance and accounting courses, she says. The parents are the biggest obstacle — more than schools, partners and friends.

“It seems parents’ fantasies are still stuck on women needing to raise a family and not found a business,” Kariv says, adding that women’s position in high-tech is actually getting worse.

It’s a painful spot for Israel and all developed countries — not only is the rate of women in high-tech and startups low, it’s decreasing, she says. There are few women in startups and the same is true for minorities.

An element of socialization

Kariv says it’s hard to pinpoint the rate of decrease because there are no precise numbers in Israel. But one sees a dramatic decline in the number of women pursuing technology studies, including higher mathematics. The classes are male-dominated, even though girls score better than boys in the lower grades.

“There’s an element of socialization here, and Israel is very conservative in this respect. Women get the message that despite the ethos of the startup nation, a woman’s place is not in high-tech because it’s a sector with many work hours,” Kariv says.

“It’s demanding and will require her attention even when she’s home during the time needed to raise the children. The large presence of men is also perceived as a threat.”

Kariv points to another key factor — the army. Most people who play technology roles in the army are men, so few women have the tools to enter the field.

“That’s where male networking is created, as well as the path to succeed in entrepreneurship, especially in technology initiatives and startups,” she says. “It’s impossible to work alone. You need people to help spread the news and who’ll believe in you.”

According to Kariv, men and women disagree about who’s responsible for the current situation. Women are guilty in that they don’t create communities in which they can seek investment money and mentors. Women are more afraid to ask for help. Men are guilty in that most investors and entrepreneurs are men who exclude women.

Kariv says venture capital funds and mentors are gender neutral. They consider whether an investment is good, not whether the chief executive is a man.

“Still, the socialization process creates more faith among men in other men,” she says. “The good news is that the more mentors come from high-tech to young entrepreneurs and advisory committees, the better it will be for women in the long term.”

The first thing women need to attain top high-tech positions is chutzpah, Kariv claims. “Go and ask,” she says. “Ask for a promotion, to manage a project.”

The second thing is initiative. “You see that glass ceiling? Launch a new project,” she says. “I opened the strategy and development department at the College of Management. Another thing is networking and developing a conversation among women within the organization.”

Kariv notes that only some women promote other women in high-tech.

“Very few women in VC funds invest more in women than in men. But men who have invested in women’s projects say that working with women in startups is a better experience for a number of reasons. First, women are punctilious. When they promise something, they deliver the same day. Men in contrast tend more to procrastinate,” she says.

“Second, there’s hardly any problem with women regarding return on investment. It’s reached faster with women because they’re grateful someone has invested in them. They stop at nothing to return him the investment.”

Moreover, investors say women treat a project like family.

“It’s important because a startup is a roller coaster, and if there’s an embracing mother figure helping and supporting, the whole feeling of the startup is much better,” Kariv says. “Investors really appreciate that.”