For Women in Israeli Hi-tech, Sexual Misconduct's Only Part of the Problem

Straight up sexual harassment is a problem that’s easy to identify, but these incidents are the reasons why women find it hard to work in the industry on a day to day basis

Ruti Levy
Ruti Levy
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FILE PHOTO: This industry could really use some soul-searching, and not only over invasive contact or a forced kiss in a parking lot.
FILE PHOTO: This industry could really use some soul-searching, and not only over invasive contact or a forced kiss in a parking lot.Credit: Eyal Taueg
Ruti Levy
Ruti Levy

The broadcast of an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct against a managing general partner of Pitango Venture Capital sent shock waves through the Israeli startup ecosystem.

The industry is shaken: on Monday, less than a week after the segment was aired on "Uvda," Israel’s prime investigative journalism television show, Rami Beracha resigned and became the first Israeli venture capitalist to pay the price over such conduct. It feels like the time is ripe for more women to come forth and speak up. 

When it comes to gender relations, the tech industry could use some self-scrutiny, on every level - not just when it comes to the most extreme cases of invasive contact such as a forced kissing in a parking lot.

Six months ago, Inbal Orpaz, a talented journalist and good friend, published an article in TheMarker that laid the foundations for the recent “Uvda” investigation. The article did not name specific individuals, so the venture capital guys just rolled their eyes and carried on with business as usual. But the recent report on their friend has caused them to start paying attention. 

So in the spirit of self-scrutiny, let’s get the ball rolling. I’m not a high-tech entrepreneur, I am a journalist. I get my salary from a different boss, in a different industry, the newspaper world. Yet, let me share with you some of the things I’ve experienced, as a young-ish woman working on a daily basis with people from the tech world. 

Here’s a sample: I’m at a meeting with two partners at a highly regarded foreign venture capital fund I’ve never met before. In the room with me are six men — the investors, the editors and my colleagues. A discussion develops about international funds, and I ask, “Do Israeli entrepreneurs see differences between them and the local funds?” The investor replies: “You’re asking that only because you know nothing.”

That really embarrasses me. But he is spirited and entertaining and his words flow, and my colleagues laugh out loud several times through the course of the meeting. 

Toward the end of the meeting, he is recounting a pivotal incident in Israeli history and muses “We’re all aged over 45 here” - and then immediately adds “Except for you that is, you’re very young.” 

Credit: Eyal Taoueg

As it happens, most of the people in the room were not over 40 - in fact two of them were exactly my age (33). I also had more years of journalism experience than most of the male reporters in the room. I spoke up, mentioning these points — but for some reason the people around me had seen his comment as a compliment. I felt bad.

It wasn’t the first time I had felt diminished, nor was it the last. For one of my first major articles, the newspaper's producer asked my interviewee — a venture capital investor who is two decades my senior, married with children — to send some portrait photos for the article I’d written.

In response, he sent me a WhatsApp message asking if I wanted the pictures to come with a personalized note. I tried to make light of it by joking that it was too late as his assistant had already sent a full photo album. To this he replied “with clothes on?” I reacted ("What kind of question is that?"), he apologized ("You're right. Not appropriate. Long day").

Several weeks later, when he offered to pick me up from the newspaper for some event, I told him I wouldn’t be attending, but in any case TheMarker could pay for a cab ride. He wrote that he knows my boss, and hopes that it’s okay with him that I waste money on taxis.

And then there was that time at a conference, when an investor pinched me on the cheek and later came up to me from behind and pressed his hands down on my shoulders. And the time I was 'talked over' for the entire duration of a meeting with one of Israel’s top veteran venture funds — in other words, I asked the questions, but my colleague received the answers. I once jokingly mentioned to an interviewee that his competitors complained that I interview him too frequently, to which he replied “Just tell them we’re sleeping together, that will shut them up.”

As I was deliberating as to whether or not to even write this article, someone I respect remarked “None of these stories are about grabbing someone by force outside a restaurant and shoving a tongue in their mouth.” He’s right. These accounts don’t even come close.

Rami Beracha-style behavior is a problem that’s easy to identify, but the incidents that I described are the reasons why women find it hard to work in the industry on a day to day basis.

We’re so preoccupied with the question of what constitutes sexual harassment that we barely allow ourselves to feel uncomfortable in situations that don’t meet the legal definition. At each of these incidents, as I felt that something wrong was happening, I had to turn to a male colleague and ask whether he also viewed the incident as problematic, for validation. The day to day experience is that of being the only woman in the conference room.

What I experienced is nothing compared to women who work in the industry and are involved in employer-employee or investor-entrepreneur relationships, when a man has the power to decide a woman’s fate.

A few months ago I toyed with the idea of publishing WhatsApp exchanges between women and men in the industry and to point out the balance of power between them.

Not in order to frighten anyone, not in order to provide evidence for the police or the courts — but so that the men who recognize themselves in these messages could stop for a moment and reflect on whether such behavior is alright. In order to hold a mirror up to the industry so they can see their own vernacular. Because there is room for change.

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