Sufficiently Forceful, Opinionated and Professional

Four women, among the few in senior management in technology firms, talk about their battle for power

Although it is considered a liberal, young, vibrant and trail-blazing industry, based on principles of innovation, the high tech field is not dotted with women in senior management. In fact, it was hard to find four Israeli women holding the senior position of manager of information systems.

Last week, the four managers gathered to discuss the image of the senior woman manager in posts that until recently was reserved for men. The are the director of information systems at Delek, Flora Levin, who earned her degree in Computer Sciences at the Technion during a period when the entire department included no more than five women; the director of information systems at Marvell, Annie Zarbiv, who began her career as a secretary at Intel Haifa, until one day she informed her managers that if she wasn't promoted, she would leave; the director of systems at Tadiran Telecom, Leah Ashkenazy, an 18-year veteran in the field of computers; and deputy director in charge of operations and director of information systems at Nice, Carmela Avner, who previously worked at EDS, Teva and Scitex.

The panel was arranged by Haaretz and Oracle, a company with whom they work a great deal.

They manage without great difficulty to solve the internal contradictions common to the figure of the woman manager: Although they are aware of the "glass ceiling" that prevents women from advancing, they believe that if they want to, they will be able to advance to the job of CEO at a company; they believe that they weren't required to work harder than men in order to achieve their senior status, and that the managerial challenges with which they deal are similar to those dealt with by men. On the other hand, they find it difficult to find a mutual topic for conversation with clients, most of whom are men, but overcome the hurdle by talking about books and films.

No connection to motherhood

Women serve as managers of information systems today, says Flora Levin, because of the advantages inherent in working in front of a computer. "You don't have to use force or authority on anyone, you can work from home, the hours are flexible - it attracts many young women," she says.

"The area of computers has developed mainly during the past decade," adds Annie Zarbiv. "Since the 1990s, it was clear that women can work in technological fields, many women have managed to achieve senior positions."

Nevertheless, they are quick to say their greatest advantage is not their technological expertise, but rather their administrative talents."I get embarrassed when they ask me to recommend anti-virus software. It's not my field of expertise"' says Carmela Avner. "I am familiar with administrative processes, I know how to manage people - that's where I excel."

Leah Ashkenazy agrees: "The job of a manager of information systems is clearly an administrative job. The technology part doesn't interest me. What does interest me are the needs of the organization and my ability to support these needs."

"Even CEOs who were once outstanding development people no longer deal with development," says Zarbiv. "The are involved in managing the organization, managing manpower, making decisions. The same thing is happening with us."

However, at senior levels of administration, the differences can now be discerned, even among the women themselves. Ashkenazy, for example, insists that women in senior management must work harder, and overcome higher hurdles than do men. "We are different in that we are `the other,'" she says. "Anyone entering a board meeting here will immediately notice that I'm the only woman. Only for that reason do I have to excel all the time."

Levin and Zarbiv reject this position. "The expectations are the same, and the demands are the same. A manager of my status is expected to be sufficiently forceful, sufficiently opinionated, sufficiently professional. In that context, nobody cares whether I'm a man or a woman," says Levin. Zarbiv agrees: "Women don't have to try harder. They have to do the work, without any connection to the extra burden they bear because of the fact that they are mothers." "How can you just neutralize that?" says Ashkenazy angrily, but she is left without an answer.

One of the issues that preoccupies the women on the panel is creating the first contact with the client, who is usually a man. The lack of a built-in masculine advantage is felt, they say, during initial meetings between the two parties, when the small talk that is meant to relax the atmosphere and break the ice is always about soccer and reserve duty.

"I don't know anything about soccer or army units. There is a hurdle here that has to be overcome, it's a challenge that must be met," says Avner. Ashkenazy agrees. "The men also discover somehow that they served together in the army. And I, with all the best intentions, don't understand soccer."

The small talk, it turns out, is not a negligible issue, and is very important for creating relationships with clients. "When you are a junior programmer and you sit in front of the computer, it doesn't matter which soccer team you root for, or what diapers you use," says Levin. "But when you reach senior administrative positions and meet with suppliers or with clients, there's small talk. You can't get right down to business. And what can we do" We're not British and we don't talk about the weather, we talk about soccer. There's no doubt we have to try harder in order to create the initial human contact."

Zarbiv, who was born and raised in France, doesn't feel the very Israeli need, as she puts it, to talk right off about the army. "I talk with the men about culture, cinema, food and even literature. I have discovered several men who read."

"But not about cigars," calls out Ashkenazy.

"No, but I smoke cigarettes, I can talk to them about that."

Although the percentage of woman CEOs is small, the panel participants claim that it depends mainly on them whether they can achieve this. "The real question is not whether we can achieve the position of CEO, but whether we want to," says Avner. "It's first of all our own decision," adds Ashkenazy. "The meaning of being a CEO is giving up many things. I go through a crisis every few years and ask myself if it's worth it to me to miss out on the things I do because of my job. The answer isn't always easy."

They say their being women doesn't prevent the senior executives from offering them the job of CEO. The consideration is practical only. "I don't know if I have the necessary talents to be the manager of company," says Avner. "But in that sense, I'm no different from the vice president in charge of finances, the vice president in charge of manpower or other executives. Decisions of that nature are made on a practical level."

Although the conversation raised the term "glass ceiling" (which prevents women from advancing within the organization) several times, the four managers insisted on the same line when it came to advancing women when they recruit workers. "I don't engage in affirmative action. There's no such thing for me," says Avner.... "If the worker is good, I'll hire him. The question of an employee is a man or a woman is immaterial to me."

"They say that because women are likely to become pregnant, it's better to give preference to men. That's not true," explains Zarbiv. "A man takes two weeks of vacation each year, another week of sick leave, and afterward, he does a month of reserve duty. That's two months of work that are lost. For that reason, I don't give preference to either men or women. I hire anyone who is suitable, since I'll harm the company if I take a woman just because she's a woman."

Ashkenazy also insists that ability, and ability alone, is what is required of an employee, without regard to gender. "I don't advance women on the spot," she says. "In order to achieve a certain position you need tools, and a work force is such a tool. Every manager knows that he won't be able to make progress if he doesn't choose the best manpower. If I have two candidates, a man and a woman, and the woman is 5 percent less capable than the man, I won't take her just because she's a woman. I take the best, because I want to succeed."

"What we are saying is that we are more loyal to the organization than to the female sex," sums up Levin, but adds: "I must admit that if a woman comes for an interview and tells me that she has a baby at home, it does something to me."

"I think that on the organizational level, it's better to have a balanced mix of men and women in executive positions," says Levin. "I want to believe that we do have an advantage," says Avner. "When I look at a project, I look at wider perspectives than men do. I have seen that I can better predict the needs of the user, the organizational behavior. Especially in the field of technology, when the projects enter at all levels of the organization, this ability is an advantage."

"I agree that for broad and long-range projects there is a need for acrobatic talents, which require that you be more sensitive," says Zarbiv. "But I don't know if I have an advantage in being a woman. There are men with analytic talents like mine, too. On the other hand, there aren't many men like that."