Our youngest son Noam recounts in a recent blog:
“In the 2011 movie The Help, Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis plays the nanny of a little white girl in 1960s Mississippi. She tells the little girl every night: “You are smart, You’se kind, you’se important.”
“Notice what’s missing? No mention of how beautiful she is.
“I have applied this lesson to my own life after noticing that every time my little two-year-old daughter Rimon puts on a dress, everyone tells her how beautiful or cute she looks.
“Instead, I now tell her, every time she gets dressed, how smart she looks. And with time, she now says when she puts on a dress: ‘Look how smart I look, Abba!’”
Yes, women are smart. Why? My own half-baked theory is this.
Over the 50,000 years that humans have lived on Earth, men endured and prevailed through strength. Muscles. Women survived through brains.
So, don’t quote me, but if Israel’s future lies with brains, not brawn, and it does for sure, we really do need more women to study science, technology, engineering and math (dubbed STEM).
I do know the data. There are no significant differences in intelligence between men and women. But, hey, women are certainly not dumber than men. So why are men disproportionately dominant in brainy fields?
Israel boasts the highest rate of economic growth among all 38 OECD (developed) economies, almost solely driven by its hi-tech sector. We cannot afford to waste the minds of our girls and women.
Gender bias in STEM is pervasive in the US and in Israel. Noam recounts that when Radio Shack introduced the TRS-80 computer in 1977, the TV commercial for it featured two boys – Eliot and Jeff. Jeff’s sister emerges at the very end – to admire Jeff.
Women have been far less likely to study computer science because the male culture has dominated. In the US, only one computer science graduate in five is female, and a similar proportion exists for engineering studies. Moreover, since men shape most of the artificial intelligence algorithms, they may be severely biased against women, just as many pharmaceuticals are. Few drugs are specifically tested on women to identify gender differences.
The Israeli numbers are a bit more favorable. According to the Council of Higher Education, women account for six out of every 10 students seeking an undergraduate degree. But fewer than one in three computer science students are women, though the number of women there has doubled in the past eight years.
The picture in hi-tech studies overall – electronics, information systems, etc. – is less promising. There, only one student in five is female. The Planning and Budgeting Committee has set as its goal to have women comprise over one-third of all students in hi-tech studies in the future, using scholarships, incentives, support programs and other means.
I have worked at the Technion for 43 years and wanted to learn whether the Technion is actively promoting having more women study science and engineering. According to Ynet, a leading news website, 44% of Technion undergrads are women – the highest proportion in Technion’s 100-year history. A third of recent new hires were women, and a record seven deans are women.
One day, perhaps, the Technion president will be a woman – as now prevails at MIT, biologist Sally Kornbluth. At MIT, the provost and the chancellor are also women.
But in terms of women faculty members, kudos go to other universities. The University of Haifa leads: 45% of its senior staff are women, followed by Tel Aviv University. (35%).
According to a pre-pandemic (2018) study by the Knesset Research and Information Center, the gender bias problem in Israel begins in high school. Some 15% of boys took the physics matriculation exam at the 5 study-unit level, compared to only 6% among girls. And 13% of boys took the computer science exam at the 5 study-unit level, compared to 6% of their female counterparts.
The study notes that 7% of Jewish women who graduated high school in 2007 and began studies at institutions of higher education within 10 years study STEM subjects. However, this rate increases to 32% when considering those women who studied mathematics and English at the 5 study-unit level in high school. Similarly, 3% of Muslim women who graduated high school in 2007 and started their studies in institutions of higher education within ten years study STEM. Of these women, 21.5% of those who also completed mathematics and English at the 5 study-unit level study STEM subjects.
Conclusion: More boys and more girls need to study math at a high level in high school so the door to hi-tech college studies will open for them. But girls trail badly.
I spoke about this with Prof. Irad Yavneh, formerly dean of Computer Science at the Technion, now director of the Neaman Institute, where I work: “In the decade 2008-2017, the average percentage of female graduates (of undergraduate programs) in the faculty of Computer Science was 23%,” he noted.
He added, “I cannot say if the apparent increase in the last three years is here to stay. However, this year 38% of our new [computer science] students are women, which is probably a record of many years, so there is some hope. The 111 female graduates in a single year, as we had in 2021, is an all-time record for any faculty in the Technion. In my opinion, the actual numbers are no less important than the percentages.”
Ultra-Orthodox – Reverse gender bias
Ironically, there may be reverse gender bias among the ultra-Orthodox. Increasingly, men send their wives out to work so they [the men] can study full time in their yeshivas.
“The understanding that hi-tech recruiters need to look under different rocks for smart people has led to a new wave of development in the hi-tech workforce’s diversity, which now features brilliant minds belonging to the country’s Arabs, Druze and haredi people, particularly women. The employment rate of haredi women as of 2019 was 77%. Many of those women are moving into hi-tech.”Zachy Hennessy
According to Jerusalem Post reporter Zachy Hennessey, “The understanding that hi-tech recruiters need to look under different rocks for smart people has led to a new wave of development in the hi-tech workforce’s diversity, which now features brilliant minds belonging to the country’s Arabs, Druze and haredi people, particularly women. The employment rate of haredi women as of 2019 was 77%. Many of those women are moving into hi-tech.”
Haaretz reporter Nati Tucker and columnist Meirav Arlosoroff report that haredi women are eager to join the workforce so their husbands can study Torah full time. The result is that their husbands and sons are far less eager to work, as the mothers bring in generous parnasa (livelihood). The proposal of the new Netanyahu government to raise yeshiva stipends to NIS 1,300 monthly will strengthen this trend.
Hence, Israel faces a unique dilemma with regard to reverse gender bias. “Massive state investment in haredi women employment,” Arlosoroff notes, “has been a boomerang, and creates a difficult dilemma – to stop encouraging haredi women to go out to work because of the negative impact on male workforce participation? Clearly, we cannot do this.”
Only half of haredi men are in the labor force, compared with 88% of non-haredi men, and that percentage is declining.
Gender bias in STEM is not confined solely to Israel and the US. According to OECD data across 35 European countries, only one in five computer science graduates are women. In contrast, in Algeria over 50% are women, and Morocco is close behind. Lower-income countries have a higher rate of female STEM students because of financial incentives – parents direct girls down this route due to the high financial return and income security.
Life is all about incentives. It is crucial for Israel’s future to design incentives that bring more girls (and boys) to study math and science in high school, and to shape incentives that bring more ultra-Orthodox men into the workforce.
But the current coalition government featuring Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich, and Yitzhak Goldknopf seems eager to do the opposite.
Ministers have now chosen their directors-general – the CEOs of their ministries. The score? Men – 23. Women – zero. ■
‘Girls want to solve problems’
A mother and senior manager posted this response to Noam’s blog: “We also need to recognize that we can tell girls they are smart all day long, but if the work does not/is not perceived to provide an outcome that means something to them, we will still lose them. Many girls want to solve problems to help people – not to fix code or solve a problem in a vacuum. They don’t always want to build a Lego set to build the house – they want to create something that helps or connects people. We constantly ask girls, “Don’t you want to learn to code?” No, they don’t. Perhaps if we frame it in a way that has an outcome they care about, the answer will be different. We need to speak differently about the work and prop up their smarts! I have boys and a girl, and see it first-hand.”
Kira Radinsky, superstar
Kira immigrated to Israel from the Ukraine at age four. At age 15, she began computer science studies at the Technion and received her PhD at age 26. She served in IDF Intelligence and has won two Israel Security awards. She developed algorithms to predict epidemics and political unrest. Her software predicted an outbreak of cholera in Cuba and riots in Sudan. She founded SalesPredict, acquired by eBay. Since the end of 2021, Radinsky has served as the CEO of Diagnostic Robotics, Tel Aviv, which she co-founded in 2019. It applies advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence to make healthcare better, less expensive, and more widely available.
And she is only 36 years old.
The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com