Ultra-Orthodox Women Embrace High-tech, but on Their Own Terms

Up to 7,500 Haredi women work in secular high-tech firms, but a newly released study shows they avoid forging social ties with secular colleagues.

Haaretz, Israel/April 8, 2016

By Janan Bsoul

You won’t find A. – a 22-year-old ultra-Orthodox woman – complaining about working in an open-plan office. While open-plan spaces often engender complaints about the noise and lack of privacy, they appear to be the preferred configuration for Haredi women working at secular high-tech Israeli firms.

“It helps them navigate between their own conservatism and the non-Haredi character of the workplace, to settle into the place and demonstrate their loyalty and knowledge to the employer,” explains Michal Frenkel, a professor in the anthropology and sociology department at the Hebrew University.

Together with Varda Wasserman of the Open University, Frenkel has studied the situation of ultra-Orthodox women working at high-tech firms.

Many employers assume that hiring Haredi women will involve adapting the workplace to their needs, Frenkel and Wasserman’s study found. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis generally condition their consent upon the companies’ readiness to make accommodations. Several Haredi women’s training programs refuse to refer their graduates to employers who don’t make such provisions, the study found.

Asking rabbis, however, has some drawbacks.

“Instead of asking the employees what would suit them and adjusting job conditions accordingly, the employers ask the rabbis,” Frenkel explains. “So a situation is created in which the accommodation really isn’t appropriate. The study found that, contrary to the belief that the women prefer to work in a separate space, Haredi women usually prefer the open-plan space so they aren’t separated from their non-Haredi colleagues.”

Ironically, open-plan space appeals to Haredi women for the same reasons others don’t like it: It obscures one’s personal identity and deprives them of privacy. “The open space helps the ultra-Orthodox women navigate between their conservative backgrounds and their new, unfamiliar environment,” says Frenkel.

The constant oversight involved in an open-plan office motivates ultra-Orthodox women to show that they’re engrossed in their work, Frenkel notes. “As part of the visibility, they prove that they’re not wasting time on interaction with their work colleagues, aren’t gossiping on the phone, aren’t surfing the web – that all of their time is devoted to their work alone. In addition, their visibility makes them able to gain legitimacy from the rabbi supervising them – when there is one – as well as from their husbands and the community.”
“I sit in an office with three other Haredi women rather than an open space, but the door is always open,” says Ruhama, a 22-year-old quality assurance employee at a high-tech firm in the center of the country. “There have been times when I have sat in a room with men, and what made the situation easier for me was that the door was always open,” she says.

Stretching existing boundaries

The presence of ultra-Orthodox women in high-tech is nothing new. Matrix Global, the information technology company, was the first to set up office space for women in Haredi towns, with hundreds of women receiving training and accommodation for their needs.
An estimated 5,000 to 10,000 Haredim work in the high-tech sector, and about 75 percent of them are women. And more and more ultra-Orthodox women want to break into the field, and earn the higher salaries that places of employment outside the Haredi community provide. About 600 Haredi women a year graduate from technical engineering programs, but many have difficulty finding work – particularly at largely secular firms.

The two researchers say that seeking a job at a secular company is a complex process, creating a certain amount of fear among the women. It requires them to deal with pressures and dilemmas, culture shock and a threat to the character of Haredi society.

“The new situation presents the women with the continuing need to set limits for themselves, and stretch existing limits, making decisions related to Jewish religious law or cultural matters on a daily basis, and demarcating the limits between themselves and their female Haredi colleagues,” explains Racheli Ibenboim, founder and director of the Movilot program, an employment program for ultra-Orthodox women.

Ibenboim says the women “assume the task of preserving their Haredi identities,” adding that they’re usually the family’s sole or main breadwinner. “Going out to work at a non-Haredi place is not a process of integration, but rather leverage to preserve and carry out an internal Haredi ideal,” she notes, a reference to giving their husbands the opportunity to engage in religious study.

“I don’t see an internalization of oppression in their behavior,” says Frenkel. “They are part of a community whose norms they accept, but they refuse to be on the margins and are fighting for a more central place in the community and at home. They don’t want to be perceived as rebellious or that their religiosity is reduced, but they manage to beat the rules that otherwise would not enable them to do this. When the women prove their devotion, they can transition to mixed workplaces without sustaining harsh social criticism – particularly when they get backing from their husbands. You need to remember that these Haredi women are dependent on their husbands’ consent when it comes to deciding on the careers that they go into.”

“I won’t go to a poker evening that employees organize or go out to eat with them, mainly over the issue of kashrut,” says Ruhama. “That doesn’t mean I’m not on good terms with my colleagues – but it’s only during working hours. It’s important for me to maintain a distance, particularly with male employees.”

“Haredi women try not to stand out in the workspace, and to clearly demonstrate that they won’t subscribe to the cultural outlook that’s prevalent in high-tech – which holds that the company is like family,” says Frenkel. “They use the space to show their difference from secular employees, and use the open space to refine this and demonstrate their religious distinctiveness. But this attempt at invisibility creates the opposite effect and actually highlights the women’s presence. The company office serves as a kind of metaphoric veil for the Haredi women, enabling them to continue to set themselves apart. And there’s a clear message to secular people in all this: don’t get too close. Their different conduct and needs spark a lot of curiosity among secular employees, even though the other staff are cautious and suspicious toward the women.”

Some 74 percent of ultra-Orthodox women are employed outside the home, recent Economy Ministry figures show. That’s already well beyond a government target of 63 percent by 2020. As for ultra-Orthodox men, 41 percent are y employed.

Although in secular terms Haredi women are more educated and better integrated into the workplace than Haredi men, they still frequently earn less than the men because of the fields in which they are commonly employed – mostly education and social welfare, fields in which ultra-Orthodox educational institutions offer studies. However, a recent study showed that, on an hourly basis, the women earn an average 4 percent more than Haredi men, because they work in fields requiring more education.

Working in high-tech may boost ultra-Orthodox women’s pay and job conditions, but Haredi women still usually earn much less than their secular counterparts in the same jobs.

“Employers are aware of the fact that Haredi women are good, loyal employees,” says Ibenboim. “It’s just that their loyalty isn’t reflected in their salaries; they get low pay, despite their loyalty and gratitude to the employer. The women’s success in high-tech and professions such as accountancy have created the illusion that the job market is open to Haredi women. But that’s not exactly the case, in part because of the nature of the Haredi woman. When an employer gives her an opportunity, she is grateful to him and won’t look to switch jobs in favor of somewhere with better terms. On the other hand, there is no reason to exploit that loyalty and pay a lower salary.”

Ruhama echoes that final point. “I am satisfied, but I think I deserve more,” she says. “My value and the value of my work are worth the same as a secular employee.”

Maintaining a distance

The new study includes a number of particularly interesting findings. For example, Haredi women generally insist on placing clear limits between themselves and their office colleagues. The women don’t want friendships with their coworkers and generally refrain from attending office social functions. In addition, they make a clear distinction between work and home. For example, they often don’t decorate their desks with family photos, don’t eat in the company cafeteria or in public so as not to violate their standards of modesty.

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