Israel's Untapped Engineers: Female and Arab

Israel’s high-tech industry has 85,000 Jewish software developers, but only 70 Arab women. Four discuss how the obstacles they face could be overcome

Israel is losing $30 billion a year because certain population groups such as Israeli-Arab women and Israeli women in general are not fulfilling their job market potential, recently noted Matthew Gould, Britain’s ambassador to Israel.
As an impartial observer, Gould was accurately analyzing a problem that has not been given much media attention. Although everyone talks about Israel’s high-tech success and calls it a “start-up nation,” the percentage of Israeli Arabs in this sector is simply too low, he said, speaking at an Equal Employment Opportunities Commission conference in Tel Aviv.

Gould is right: There are only 700 Arab software developers employed in the country’s flourishing high-tech industry, and 1,000 Israeli Arabs in this sector overall, even though thousands of Israeli Arabs have degrees in the exact sciences. In comparison, there are 85,000 Jewish software developers.
Smadar Nehab is CEO of Tsofen High Technology Centers, which is dedicated to advancing Arabs in high tech. She says only one-sixth of Arabs who graduate with exact science degrees find jobs in Israel’s high-tech industry, compared to nearly all Jewish graduates. What happens to the many Arab graduates? Some leave Israel, while many settle for jobs that do not require a college degree. In 2010, only half of Israeli-Arab college graduates were employed in jobs related to their degrees, found Kav Mashve – Employers’ Coalition for Equality for Arab University Graduates.

In 2011, 30% of Arab job seekers reported feeling subject to discrimination, according to a survey conducted by the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry’s Research and Economics Administration. That, coupled with geographic and cultural obstacles, is apparently keeping Arab graduates particularly engineers from fulfilling their potential.

“High tech is a homogeneous industry that tends to hire look-alikes,” says Nehab. “The average Israeli Arab’s background is foreign to the interviewer, who isn’t familiar with the schools the candidate attended and sees Arab interviewees through the stereotype of the ‘semi-trained service provider.’ Of course, Israeli Arabs also have their own prejudices and fears.”
If Arab engineers in general are having a tough time, then female Arab engineers are even worse off. They have an almost microscopic presence in Israel’s high-tech industry. Some estimates say there are no more than 70 Arab women working in Israeli high tech.

“Israeli-Arab women are more exposed to the pressures of tradition and family,” says Nehab. “A job that involves working around the clock and occasional travel abroad could seriously challenge a family’s expectations that an Arab woman should stay in her village and put her family first.”

‘Be a doctor’

Weaker communities also tend to encourage their young to seek jobs in professions considered “stable,” such as law, medicine or teaching.
“My mother wanted me to be a doctor,” says Basma Khalaf-Joubran, a software engineer at Intel, from the Galilee village of Kfar Rama. Now, she is married and lives in Tel Aviv.

“All the excellent Arab students are automatically encouraged to become doctors,” she says. “This is inefficient, even though not everyone should go into high tech. It would be far more sensible to aim for a heterogeneous Arab community that includes dancers, artists and salesmen, as well as women in high tech.”

It is no coincidence that all four women interviewed for this article are secular and liberal, and live in a major urban center. Nor is it a coincidence that three are married or engaged, and have no children. All four have their own car, and thus are not dependent on public transportation.

Israeli-Arab women who come from a different background and live, say, in an Arab village in the north, have almost no chance of working in Haifa or Tel Aviv, simply due to logistics. Juna Khaleel is a quality assurance engineer at Activiews, a medical equipment company, and lives in Haifa.

“Israeli-Arab women want to work, but they lack a way to get from their village to the office, because public transportation is inadequate,” she says. “External intervention is needed. How many bus lines connect villages in northern Israel to the major technology centers in Haifa and Tel Aviv, and how often do these buses run? In addition, the roads in these villages are in such poor condition that even driving is tough.”

Khalaf-Joubran says another factor is discouraging Arab women from joining the high-tech industry: the lack of role models. She began working at Intel during her final year as an undergraduate, and has been there ever since. “Intel has Arabs in senior positions, and that gives you a good feeling,” she says. “Generally, Intel is the first company young Arabs look into.”

Arabs in senior positions are a key factor, because they serve as role models for young Arab professionals, she says. “What we need is an Arab counterpart to Yossi Vardi,” an entrepreneur who has helped many start-ups, she says.
She was strongly influenced by a mentor from her village, Ziyad Hanna, who founded Jasper Design Automation’s international R&D center in Haifa and is now its development manager.

“We do have some role models,” Khalaf-Joubran notes, “but they are not well enough known or given enough credit. Moreover, there are no successful Arab women in high tech who could serve as role models. We are the first generation of Arab women who are working in Israel’s high-tech industry and we all grew up in families where our mother would be waiting for us after school with a hot lunch.”

When the role model is in your own family, the road to success is somewhat easier. For instance, Khaleel’s mother is a graduate of the computer science faculty at the Technion – Institute of Technology, Haifa, and her aunt and uncle, Rim and Imad Younis, founded neuroscience technology company Alpha Omega in Nazareth in 1993. Khaleel’s father is a pharmacist.

Hagai Frid

“From an early age, I knew I would be studying at the Technion,” she says. But she knows that not all Israeli-Arab women were so fortunate to grow up in this kind of environment.

Nonetheless, circumstances are not enough, she says – you need the drive to succeed. “I would never have made it if I weren’t a fighter,” she says.
In order to promote a greater awareness of her profession – biomedical engineering – she regularly lectures students at her old high school. “I offer presentations on biomedical engineering. It is important to promote and explain this field,” she says.Do Israeli-Arab women fear that working in high tech will make it harder for them to find a spouse?

Khalaf-Joubran: “Half of my girlfriends are their households’ main breadwinner, and men might consider that a threat. But I believe this is a global phenomenon. Arab society is more traditional, and that means the men without college degrees may not want wives with degrees.”

Bring friends

Duaa Jahshan, who has been working for the past 11 years at Marvell Israel in Yokne’am, is the only one of the four interviewees with children. She returned from maternity leave a year and a half ago.

“Any woman who has to spend four hours commuting and picking up a child from nursery school will not want such a job, and will choose to work close to home,” she says.

Jahshan studied electronics and computers in high school, and then enrolled at the Technion. While a student, she started working at the on-campus office of Galileo Technology.

Young Israeli-Arab college graduates face both geographic and mental obstacles, she says.

“In high-tech companies in northern Israel, which already employ Arab engineers, the approach is ‘Tell your friends to join us.’ There is more openness in such companies because the Arab employees have already proven themselves,” she says.

“However, firms in central Israel employ fewer Arabs and thus have more stigmas. This vicious cycle must be broken, although there is the additional problem that companies in central Israel are far from the Galilee, where most of Israel’s Arabs live,” she says.

Rana Faran’s journey to the Technion and then on to Marvell and Intel began at a chess club within her village, Ilyeh. The club was launched by a young, motivated teacher.

“He recruited children who showed an aptitude for mathematics and physics,” she recalls. “I was part of the club until 9th grade. The club’s instructor was so dedicated he was even willing to accept students who didn’t have the money to pay the membership fee. He taught us how to use software programs and encouraged me to buy a computer.”

For Faran, this personal anecdote proves how a childhood mentor can lead to a promising career. Her parents, of course, wanted her to be a doctor.
“Part of the trouble is my community’s traditions,” she believes. “Even young women who choose to swim against the tide and study exact sciences frequently are called on to return to the village after they have finished their degree. Women who are expected to be primarily housewives simply do not choose to study engineering, while women who have engineering degrees and return to their village face the obstacle of geographic distance.”

What should a young Israeli-Arab woman who wants to work in Israel’s high-tech industry do?

Khalaf-Joubran: “She should draw encouragement from the success stories and pay little attention to those who did not make it. Some say that anyone who chooses to go into high tech is taking a risk. The truth is that no matter where, someone can tell you how they didn’t find a job. So what? You have to think positive and do what you are good at.

“And then there’s the issue of age. Arabs go to university, study like crazy and then immediately go looking for work, as opposed to Jews, who first serve in the army and start interviewing for jobs at age 28, when they’re already quite mature.”
She sees the difference when interviewing job candidates, she says.

“I can see the gap. The communities simply have different starting points. Arab candidates need to be prepped for interviews.”

Khaleel adds: “The language of high tech is English and, for Arabs, English is a third language. For instance, when being interviewed, I was asked to switch to English, and that wasn’t easy. It’s like telling an Israeli Jew that the interview will be conducted in German. The Arab community needs to improve its English-language studies.”

How does society treat these four Arab women, whose profession demands that they work around the clock, and what price do they pay? Faran says others in her village respond positively.

“Older men stop me in the street and tell me, ‘We are proud of you,’” she says. However, her brothers still do not know how to react.
Some families are just beginning to address the issue of gender equality, she says.

“At home, I am asked, half-jokingly, to clear the dishes from the table and I refuse, saying I work just as hard as they do. Why should I be expected to do that chore? They respond, ‘No one is forcing you to work so hard.’”