Seventeen-year-old Shani, who studies writing computer code in high school, sits in a conference room at Kodak’s Petah Tikva offices Sunday surrounded by a team of successful, talented women in the field of hi-tech.
They’re working on a system called Walk Me, which will utilize sensors and a smartphone to serve the same purpose as a walking stick for blind people.
The device will detect objects and send a signal alerting the user to obstacles in their way, freeing up their other hand from the cane.
“I heard that for blind people, it’s tough to detect tall obstacles with the stick,” Shani says, adding that they will have to make the system very inexpensive. “The statistics say that 70 percent of blind people are unemployed, so they can’t afford much,” she notes.
The team, which is comprised of women from some of the world’s biggest tech companies, is one of six competing in a “weekathon,” a week-long competition to create a basic product, sponsored by the Israeli Advanced Technology Industries (IATI), Israel's umbrella organization for high-tech and life science.
This year, for the first time, the weekathon is focused on women, bringing together some of the best female engineers, programmers and developers from an impressive list of companies with R&D centers in Israel: Intel, Microsoft, eBay, HP Software, Marvell, Kodak, Siemens, Citi, Motorola and GM.
“It doesn’t come from a feminist place. This isn’t because women are weak or we want to give them a chance. Women are an amazing force in hi-tech, and we want to strengthen their place in hi-tech, where a lot of people don’t see it,” says IATI CEO Karin Mayer Rubinstein.
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Only 35% of Israel’s hi-tech workers are women, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.
A Finance Ministry report released Sunday, however, said that figure was inflated.
A disproportionate number of women listed as employed in hi-tech actually work in human resources and administrative tasks, the report said.
When the data were limited to work involving core positions of hi-tech, women accounted for just 26%.
Setting social issues aside, the Finance Ministry noted two problems that arise from the absence of women in Israel’s most productive sector.
One is that Israel is facing a shortage of engineers, a problem the country might not face if a greater proportion of women studied STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and went into the hi-tech sector.
That’s one reason IATI made sure to include female high-schoolers like Shani in the Weekathon.
“This girl probably can’t believe it, sitting there and seeing these incredible women in action,“ says Rubinstein. The hope is that she and the other girls participating in the program will make an impression on their friends when they go back to school.
The second problem the Finance Ministry noted about the low proportion of women in hi-tech was that it contributed to the NIS 3,650 monthly wage gap between men and women.
According to Sunday’s report, fully a third of that gender wage gap can be explained by the fact that women tend to work in lower-wage professions.
Compounding the gender wage gap, women are less frequently promoted to management and executive positions.
Though the total number of women in management positions throughout the economy grew 5% in 2015, just 7% of all employed women are managers, according to the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce. Among men, the proportion is nearly double at 13%.
Notwithstanding that sizable gap, Israel is a better place than many other developed countries in terms of women in management. The FICC, in a study done with Swiss-based IMD (International Institute for Management Development), found Israel ranked ninth out of 61 countries in terms of women in management positions. Overall, the study ranked Israel 18th in terms of policies addressing gender inequality, an improvement over 24th place the year before.
The women participating at the weekathon say their motivation for joining was less about being in an all-female environment than simply taking an opportunity to advance themselves professionally, work with people from other companies, and break their daily routines.
“The idea is to open doors, to advance innovation and cooperation between the companies,” says Sveta Gorelik, of chipmaker Marvell.
Their projects range from an app to filter out the most important messages from overwhelming Whatsapp groups using intelligent context filters, to a smart backpack that analyzes if the kids forgot anything important before they leave the house.
The development week will culminate with a Demo Day on Thursday, where the teams will present their wares to family, colleagues and executives.
“There’s never been anything like this, especially just for women,” Rubenstein emphasizes, noting that Israel’s concentration of hi-tech uniquely positions the country to foster cooperation between such a large swath of big hi-tech companies.
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