Women with hard drive: Meet the leading women in Israeli hi-tech

Ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8, we meet the powerful individuals taking a byte of the hi-tech sector

IDITH VARON discusses the Women’s Professional Development Network program. (photo credit: EZRA LEVY)
IDITH VARON discusses the Women’s Professional Development Network program.
(photo credit: EZRA LEVY)
 There are many career paths that carry with them the age-old stigma of being a “man’s job.” The corporate role, the man in a suit, is a trademark of the business world, and the bespectacled young fellow hunched over a bulky black laptop is equally tied to the image of the hi-tech industry. That, however, has not been the image of programmers and innovators in quite a while – that world is changing.
Today, women are some of the leaders of the technological sector and are more clearly distributed throughout each field within it.
ALEGRA KILSTEIN, chief information officer (CIO) at Amdocs, began her path into the hi-tech industry long before she reached the frontlines of the famed software company and multinational corporation. As a child, she always tended to go for learning natural and formal sciences over the humanities and other such subjects. She had studied in the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology for her bachelor’s degree and Tel Aviv University for her master’s.

AMDOCS CIO Alegra Kilstein. (Photo credit: Courtesy)AMDOCS CIO Alegra Kilstein. (Photo credit: Courtesy)

From there, she began to flourish in the fields of engineering and computing, which led her to the role she holds today.
“I am responsible for Amdocs Information Technologies, including information systems, infrastructure and cybersecurity domains,” Kilstein told the Magazine. “I have a global organization with approximately 1,000 employees, mostly developers and engineers, spread out across the globe, and that includes men and women alike, with plenty of women in managerial roles.”
Indeed, approximately 30% of Amdocs employees are women – not the 50% mark of a true reflection of societal distribution, but a nevertheless impressive amount in contrast to other companies in such a market. In Amdocs Israel, the number is even nearer to the middle ground, with 44% of employees in the country being women. Kilstein explained that she never felt any sort of gender-based barrier standing in her way.
“In my personal path, I hardly faced any kind of gender block, especially not in Amdocs,” she affirmed. “I believe that one must believe in oneself and that as a woman, you can accomplish whatever you want. Our only limitations are the ones we set up in our own minds.”
RIKI ASHOURI-COHEN, a network engineer at the telecommunications company Ericsson, also did not feel that gender bias got in her way. She entered the world of hi-tech at a very young age, studying in a high school (which has since stopped operation) run by telecommunications company Bezeq.
RIKI ASHOURI-COHEN, network engineer at Ericsson. (Photo credit: Courtesy)RIKI ASHOURI-COHEN, network engineer at Ericsson. (Photo credit: Courtesy)
“I was one among four girls altogether in my homeroom, and one among 12 altogether in our grade,” she recounted. “We were always the minority, but that didn’t make me feel different. No one in my career has looked at me and another person differently just because I’m a woman and he’s a man.”
Throughout her childhood, she had been completely and utterly enamored with the creative maneuvers of project management necessary to make it in the hi-tech world. 
“I truly loved the subject,” she shared.
Part of what made the technological world a comfortable home in which to settle her career was the natural feeling of being an “equal among equals.”
“There are people that have stigmas about women and there are those that don’t see it that way,” she said. “It depends on your surroundings. Today, there are many more women in the sector. The surroundings have changed.”
SHIFRA SPECTOR, enterprise applications manager at NESS Outsourcing Group, said that there too she does not feel victim to such sexist prejudices.
SHIFRA SPECTOR, enterprise applications manager, NESS Outsourcing Group. (Photo credit: Studio Gumat Chen)SHIFRA SPECTOR, enterprise applications manager, NESS Outsourcing Group. (Photo credit: Studio Gumat Chen)
A haredi mother of five, Spector has been with NESS since 1999 and today, manages a team of eight. But she began her work with the company as a mere employee at the support center.
“I developed professionally very much there, but eventually it was enough for me,” she said. “I was moved to internal information systems by NESS. I began as a supervisor and moved into management.”
She gushed about her love for the field of hi-tech, and the creativity needed to carry out the projects necessary. 
“I always loved technology. When I was at the end of high school, I always said I’d be either a computer technician or a social worker. But I love the solution-finding, the fact that an issue comes to my table and I have to engineer it. It’s so fun. It was born within me.”
She admitted that entering the field of hi-tech was not easy as an ultra-Orthodox woman. 
“When I studied years ago, the options for studies for haredi people were very limited. It was mostly teaching and caretaking. I couldn’t find myself within it; I had a really boring year of learning. When my mom saw me appearing so pitiful, she signed me up for a programming course and I learned 18 hours a week, which was a lot. My love began with the boredom of teaching, ironically enough.”
Despite her struggle to break into the world of hi-tech, Spector never felt that she was victim to gender bias.
“Sometimes I felt that people look at me with disbelief, but it always quickly changes. I had a customer who during our first meeting expressed a very intense lack of faith in me. Soon after, when he understood how I work, he told me that if I can’t reach him, I should do what I think is right. That’s the level of faith he ended up putting in me.”
The only place she truly sees the gender gap is in the struggle between work life and home life. 
“It’s always home, work, kids,” she sighed.
However, Spector found that the field of technological advancement was actually a comfortable haven for mothers. Being a mom of five, she needed to be able to care for her children and be ready in case anything happened, and with the kind of work she does at NESS, that is always an option.
“I have so much flexibility to work from home, even before the pandemic, so I’m always available by email and stuff. My kids were never impacted by my work, even when my workload wasn’t light. I work hard and intensely, but we work with such flexibility, and that is so special.”
YET NOT all sexism in the hi-tech field has been eradicated. At the Technion, one of the most prestigious schools for computer engineering and computer sciences and where Kilstein studied, less than one-third of those currently working toward an undergraduate degree in those fields are women.
At Applied Materials – aa company that develops and manufactures systems for the semiconductor industry – Idith Varon, who manages a team of system engineers, says she is the only woman in the entire group of program engineers with which she collaborates. Furthermore, back when she studied for her bachelor’s in computer engineering at Hebrew University and master’s in electrical engineering at Tel Aviv University, she was one of very few women in her class.
She said the role she holds at the company feels like it was meant for her. 
“I really enjoy this job and feel like I am utilizing all of my capabilities, both from my technical background and my background in physics,” she explained, referencing her previous work as a laser physicist. “Now everything is perfectly combined.”
Her love for the world of hi-tech was indeed born at home. 
“My father is a building engineer and my mother studied physics and chemistry and later moved onto computers. I was always inclined toward sciences and math. Even in high school, my electives were physics and robotics.”
She admitted, however, that she was nevertheless always a bit of an odd one out, being a female in the field of technology. 
“There are very few women in engineering and physics. It is a place in which I always felt comfortable because that’s how I was raised. Even in high school, there were very few women in physics and robotics. It didn’t bother me.”
But Varon did not just let the disparities remain under the radar. She joined a forum of women known as the Women’s Professional Development Network (WPDN), which aims at creating a platform for women in the same professional field to connect, speak and open up about struggles they face in the workplace.
“We talk about anything in which we can support one another,” she explained. “We deliberate how to close these gender gaps, the gaps that are the lack of women who can speak to one another, confess things to. If you know a woman who is a manager, you can consult with her, but these are so hard to find. These conversations would not happen on their own.”
Having a platform to share with other women allows them to question their experiences based on that of others and bring up issues in the differences. 
“If we see a particular issue that we wish to raise, we take it from the forum straight to human resources or to management. The group is women but there are men too, who find it important to advance women and bring about gender equality. This works in a way that it is grown from the ground up; the workers create the group.”
INDEED, ONE of the main issues in trying to bring about gender equality in the field is making the career path appealing to younger female audiences. Today, learning computer sciences for men seems cool; the thought of a Matrix-style computer hack is appealing. But among young women, the field seems masculine or inherently nerdy.
In Amdocs, too, where the aforementioned CIO Alegra Kilstein works, there is nevertheless the need to put an emphasis on the move to advance women in the field. 
“We set forth goals as a company relating to gender equality,” Kilstein noted. “We have plenty of programs with an even number of men and women or in which women play a significant role.”
Professionals at Amdocs value diversity, equality and inclusion, making it a part of the daily work life, she stressed.
“I really believe that equality is not a women’s issue, it’s a business issue,” she said. “Gender equality is essential for economies and communities to thrive. Collectively, each one of Amdocs’ employees can help us on our journey to close the gender gap.”
Kilstein could nevertheless not imagine a position in which gender bias was a relevant issue, since the world of hi-tech does not have jobs that one could realistically claim a man can do while a woman cannot.
CARMIT KLEINMAN, manager of the innovation center of Motorola Solutions in Israel, said she believes part of the industry’s gender gap issue is that women tend to be taken as people who can perform the little tasks, but are not truly up to task for the professional hi-tech projects. They are viewed as kolboinikiot, she said, referring to people who perform small, menial tasks.
CARMIT KLEINMAN, head of innovation center, Motorola Solutions. (Photo credit: Courtesy)CARMIT KLEINMAN, head of innovation center, Motorola Solutions. (Photo credit: Courtesy)
“I can say that in my 20 years of a career, I’ve worked my share of technological jobs,” Kleinman said. “I’ve always felt that women, because of their tendency to do administrative work, they tend to go for more menial jobs. If there is a volunteer action needed, women tend to go for it much more than men. They take jobs that are not necessarily professional. They have, on the one hand, a much broader contribution. On the other hand, they can easily fall to the position of kolboinikit.”
According to her, women in the field fall into the role of glue. 
“They bring everything together, but they are not the center of the action. The men could get the best slice of meat of work, so to speak. They don’t have time to organize events. They do the work. Women who do not root themselves in technological work do not get the same treatment.”
She clarified that it is important that women in technological positions of this kind or another demonstrate their managerial skills on a daily basis while taking broad initiatives, but they must not sacrifice their professional technical work. Instead, they must constantly strive for excellence to the best of their ability.
Kleinman, a mother of three, deals with technologies relating to public security using artificial intelligence. 
“My career of over 20 years of software development began when I was a computer engineering student,” she recounted. “I come from a family of four girls, and we didn’t have a computer for each of us. I didn’t come from a home with a computer with games. I was always interested in natural and formal sciences.”
She explained the funny experience of deliberating whether to pursue computer engineering in university. 
“I worked briefly in a disk store,” she explained. “They also sold learning programs for computers. It was a hub of learning computer programming languages and the like. We didn’t have Google, so we needed books. I was shocked that people would call from everywhere and order these books. I thought that I must do it.”
Kleinman remembers the fateful day when she spoke to the university and changed her list of preferences in her application so that the first on the list, rather than psychology, was computer engineering.
“I was so excited by my first lesson in college,” she remembered. “The logic, the algorithm, I had so much fun.”
Despite her experience, Kleinman recognized that others did not feel the same; young women did not feel such an appeal. So she launched the MotoTech Project.
“It was meant to encourage middle-school girls to look at and learn about the hi-tech world,” she said. “They are taken to see Motorola and various jobs in hi-tech, which can be finance or human resources but also the technological side. It allows them to see the effect one can have on the technological world; on apps, innovations, etc. When they think about computer sciences, they don’t want to sit in front of the computer all day. But it’s so much more than that.”
She explained that young girls are brought to Motorola facilities, where they meet women volunteers from the company who show them around and introduce them to the world of hi-tech. The program has been extremely successful and received the global CEO award of Motorola, an internal award system for initiatives within the company.
“Not many young women see how much creativity there is in this field,” she asserted. “A lot of drive. Not many understand this because it isn’t sexy.”
Applied Materials, too, has an entire program dedicated to inspiring young women to look into hi-tech as a realistic potential career goal for the future. In “Crack the Glass Ceiling,” young women are brought to Applied Materials facilities in order to introduce them to the field without fear of any negative stigma attached to it. They meet with women engineers and physicists and gain true insight into such professions, without the fear of a judgmental gaze.
The young women additionally meet various “role models” who share the great challenges of working in a male-dominated profession. They discuss the tension between motherhood and professional career goals, and the vicissitudes of being a woman in hi-tech.
Hi-tech may be filled with men, but bit by bit, women are evening up the playing field and showing that the sector would crash without them – and that the world of technology and innovation is all the better with women at the forefront.