While More ultra-Orthodox Women Work in High-tech, Claims of Exploitation Abound

N. says she worked five days a week for eight hours a day for a mere $1,170 a month

Yael Rabad, an ultra-Orthodox software engineer from the Tel Aviv suburb of Petah Tikva
Eyal Toueg

Racheli Ganot, the CEO of the Rachip hardware and software development firm, was chosen to light a torch in the state Independence Day ceremony in Jerusalem this week. She was chosen for her contribution to bringing more ultra-Orthodox women into high-tech.

Economists have long said that for Israel to continue to prosper, more Haredim must enter the workforce. Although the low workplace participation of ultra-Orthodox men is considered a particular problem, the integration of ultra-Orthodox women has also been considered a priority (as has the integration of Arab women). And the fact that many ultra-Orthodox men engage in religious studies rather than employment as adults places greater pressure on their wives to support the family in a community where poverty rates are high.

Racheli Ganot is the founder of Rachip, which manufactures computer chips and provides software and hardware development and other services. Instead of being universally welcomed, the choice of Ganot as a torchlighter has sparked some angry responses.

Over the past decade, the employment of ultra-Orthodox women has taken off in a big way, but in recent years, there have also been complaints that some firms — particularly those providing development and software inspection — are employing the women under inferior working conditions.

Critics charge that the companies get away with exploiting the lack of familiarity of ultra-Orthodox women with employment conditions, paying them substandard salaries.

Racheli Ganot, the CEO of the Rachip hardware and software development firm
Ofer Vaknin

Among the companies that have come in for criticism are Rachip and Matrix Global.

Matrix Global, which is involved mainly in software development, is thought to be the largest company of its kind in Israel and employs about 900 Haredi women.

Most of the ultra-Orthodox women who enter the world of high-tech in Israel pursue a practical engineering education. Following high school, they do two years of postsecondary education in practical computer engineering, which provides them with two options — employment at a largely secular high-tech company with generally good employment terms or to opt for firms that specifically cater to ultra-Orthodox women employees, such as Rachip and Matrix Global.

These latter firms provide the women employment conditions that suit many of their needs. They have offices near cities with large ultra-Orthodox populations. In light of the large number of children in most ultra-Orthodox families, they also offer conditions conducive to working mothers, with 90% of the positions involving working hours from 7 A.M. to 3 P.M.

They also frequently offer transportation to and from work and a work environment with only other women. The disadvantage of many of these places of employment, however, is that they pay minimum wage and offer almost no opportunity for advancement, critics say.

“I worked in software development for CitiBank on an outsourced project that Matrix Global landed at a branch in Modi’in Ilit until two years ago, and I earned 4,100 shekels ($1,170) a month,” said one woman who will only be identified as N. She said that she worked five days a week and eight hours a day at what she called mostly “grunt work” that she said Matrix Global received from companies that did not want to develop the software themselves.

“After two years, I had attained a salary of 5,100 shekels. Every Haredi woman who joins Matrix says ‘thank you,’ because most of us after the [postsecondary] seminar don’t know enough and they allow us to get experience there. Today I work at another company after gaining experience and I’m earning 20,000 shekels a month. You can say that they exploit us, but no one other than Matrix will take a girl just out of the seminar. From my standpoint, moving to Tel Aviv and looking for work is not an option and I have no other way.”

Racheli Ganot said the criticism expressed in this article is not well-founded. “Haredi engineers and practical engineers earn an excellent living and if it wasn’t profitable for them, they wouldn’t have studied on these tracks,” she said in part. “If the salary wasn’t good, women wouldn’t have streamed to our company in their masses.” Her company, she said, also invests in its staff to main high standards.

Matrix Global noted that the company founded its Matrix Talpiot centers 14 years ago to integrate Haredi women into its workforce, accepting entry-level employees after graduation. “The work at Talpiot is not similar to work at other high-tech companies. The work place takes the needs of the employee into consideration,” tailored to its ultra-Orthodox workforce, the company said in part. Employees work on personal employment contracts and a considerable number earn 20,000 shekels a month or more, the firm said.

Recent Bank of Israel data show that the rate of employment in the ultra-Orthodox community has been on the increase, and that is particularly true among Haredi women. (See chart on this page). A 2008 Knesset Research and Information Center report recommended a workplace participation target of 63% for Haredi women by 2020, but by 2017, the actual rate had reached 73.7%.

One person who is attempting to change the situation in which many Haredi women in the sector gravitate to low-paying jobs is Yael Rabad, an ultra-Orthodox software engineer from the Tel Aviv suburb of Petah Tikva, who on finishing her training opted to try her luck with a non-Haredi workplace. She said she has been with her employer, Sapiens, for five years and is earning double what many of her ultra-Orthodox high-tech contemporaries do.

Over the past two years, she has also been the administrator of group for Haredi women in high tech on the LinkedIn business networking site to encourage the advancement of the women in the field. “They even approached me at my own place of work after seeing that I deliver the goods and asked that I recruit other women.”