The Israeli Army Boasts About Women in Tech Roles. It’s ‘Juking the Stats’

The IDF told us that 50 percent of all its technical roles were filled by women. A closer examination shows how far the army still has to go on gender equality in STEM

Ruti Levy
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FILE Photo: Female soldiers working on an Israel Defense Forces base.
FILE Photo: Female soldiers working on an Israel Defense Forces base. Credit: IDF spokesperson
Ruti Levy

Traditionally, the technological positions in the Israel Defense Forces were a far cry from gender equality. We’ve reported on this issue for a number of years and have filed multiple freedom of information requests and petitions to the army’s spokesperson unit. In the 2016 draft, for example, we learned that women comprised only 17 percent of the IDF’s research and development personnel, although 34 percent of the soldiers were women at the time.

Thus, it was with great surprise when the army’s personnel directorate (known as AKA) sent us the updated data for 2019 that stated that women now filled 50 percent of technological positions, much higher than their relative part among enlisted service soldiers - 38 percent. 

How did the IDF manage to push up the share of women in technology positions at such an impressive rate in just three years? Well, it turns out that all it took is to “fix” the army’s gender issues was to change the definition of what is considered a technological position.

In the past year, we have learned that the manner the army defines who serves in a tech role has been expanded to now include a variety of professions that involve massive use of technology, but are not technological themselves. 

Various deterrence and tracing jobs in the Military Intelligence Directorate - such as translation and transcribing, and electronic intelligence - in which women have a clear majority and now make up 40 percent of the army’s technological positions.

 Info women IDF
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These positions do involve and require technological literacy, but not the practical abilities to understand and build technological systems.

The IDF is expected not to hide figures from the public, but it’s still worth noting to the Manpower Directorate’s credit their responses to our repeated requests for explanations, providing us with several breakdowns that helped clarify that data they provided. For example, the average number of women employed in computer and software positions in the army during 2019 was 31 percent, and the average number of women in cyber positions was 13 percent. Altogether this shows an increase from 20 percent in 2017 to 23 percent in 2019, according to the standard definition of technological positions (compared to women’s relative part among enlisted service soldiers, which was 36 percent and 38 percent respectively).

The army’s program enabling young Israelis to defer the draft and attend academic studies prior to their military service (Atuda) comprises about a third of the IDF’s technological alignment. But the absence of women in engineering and sciences is glaring. They comprise only 12 percent of the reservists in these disciplines, compared to 30 percent of the reservists from all academic disciplines. These figures haven’t changed since 2017, the earliest sample we were given.

When examining the proportion of women academics serving in technological positions out of all IDF graduates of the Atuda program, the representation rises to 16 percent. The IDF claims that the reason for the gap is that more women, relatively speaking, are completing their studies in the Atuda and thus returning to serve in the army afterwards as part of the program.

Human capital

Integrating women into technological positions in the IDF is extremely important. During the military service, soldiers in technological units learn skills and forge social ties key to entering into Israel’s high-tech world. They gain experience in complex problem-solving tasks with small teams during short time periods, carry a lot of responsibility and acquire valuable knowhow that can end up impacting the local start-up industry.

One of the IDF's cyber war rooms
One of the IDF's cyber war roomsCredit: IDF Spokesman Unit

Women currently make up 22 percent of the local high tech R&D positions and 9 percent of start-up founders, according to a recent SNC human capital report. To claim that women make up 50 percent of the equivalent roles in the IDF, while they receive no training to join development teams through the positions included in the new job description, is misleading and could hurt the motivation and effort to expand women’s role in these military professions.

Military service has fateful social and economic implications and serving in a technological position can generate social mobility. Therefore this raises the question of whether the army provides young women and men with an equal opportunity.

Brig. Gen. Amir Vadmani, head of the Manpower Directorate's Planning and Research Department, who entered office in 2019, believes the new definition better reflects the IDF’s technological personnel. He says he is interested in raising the percentage of women in computer and software positions from 31 to 50 and the percentage of women in cyber from 13 to 25 by the end of 2021. Vadmani also wants to increase the percentage of women in the Atuda program in STEM fields from 12 to 24. The percentage of women in deterrence and tracing positions is 65 and not likely to change.

The Israeli army's cyber division
The Israeli army's cyber divisionCredit: IDF Spokesman Unit

In recent years, with the consolidation of the cyber field as a new warfare branch with broad security implications, the role of the IDF’s technological units has expanded accordingly. 

“We have identified a very great need to expand the people in the technological alignment,” says Vadmani. “And women are the most suitable for this expansion. The reason is that a man who studies computer sciences today will very likely get to the combat division, if his medical profile allows him, unless he has very special qualities. While with women we have much more flexibility in terms of placement. In certain sectors the draft rate is unsatisfactory and the technological area can be the bridge for that. For example, only about 30 percent of the religious women who can enlist do so.”  

The STEM gap

Vadmani argues that the IDF has failed to "develop" the social infrastructure needed to create new generations of technologists and that it needs to work closer with the  public education system: "We have come to understand that we need to work not only in high schools but in middle schools. We are collaborating with the technology division in the Education Ministry and the gifted and talented program”, he adds. “We have a plan to enter ninth grades in 100 high schools to help create a meaningful sense of [technological] competence among girls."

Brig. Gen. Amir Vadmani, head of the Manpower Directorate's Planning and Research Department
Brig. Gen. Amir Vadmani, head of the Manpower Directorate's Planning and Research DepartmentCredit: IDF Spokesman Unit

One of the places that women have been almost completely absent from over the years is the prestigious Talpiot program. The program lasts nine years and includes academic studies in physics, computer science and mathematics, combat training in the paratroopers' brigade, and military training - at the end of which the graduates are integrated into key positions in the IDF's research and development units. It is estimated that only 60 to 70 percent successfully complete the full training program.

Vadmani claims that the program has come a long way in terms of its treatment of women. Between 2019 and 2020, the rate of interest in the program by high-school girls increased by 5% - the reason is that the physical screenings for the program have expanded and from being only in Jerusalem to other cities as well, like Be'er Sheva, Tiberias and Tel Aviv. He also says IDF increased it’s marketing efforts and thus helped grow the number of women who were found to be eligible for screenings. 

The little data presented to us to support the thesis, and which we were forbidden to publish due to claims it posed a risk to information security, painted a rather partial picture. The IDF gave us the absolute number of women accepted to the program -  that showed that in 2020 their number jumped by 50% compared to the previous two years (this due to an addition of just a few female soldiers). However, the data was given without the total number of soldiers accepted into Talpiot, which also increased - so it is not clear whether women also improved their relative share among the program participants. 

We reached out to a number of graduates of the program from recent years, they said there were similar numbers of women in the program in the past as well. They also said there are years where only one woman is accepted, making the data presented by Vadmani anecdotal at best. 

The IDF, he adds, did note that among the soldiers who started the program in 2019, women currently make up about 13% of the students, followed by the dropout of a number of men whose numbers were not revealed. The IDF has tried to argue that this means that the women’s survival rates in the program are higher. But even here they provided no more than a one-time indication that it is too early to decide - since the soldiers in question have completed only one year of training, and stand before the end-of-year committees, where there are departures and dropouts. We already know that in IDF programming courses, women are a relative minority and have higher dropout rates compared to men.

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