Visiting Israeli Tech: Sexist, Racist Responsa

The Good Part

I had a fantastic week in Tel Aviv for DevOpsDays. On a personal level, I met some really great people —¬†Charity Majors of Honeycomb, Nathen Harvey and Adam Jacob from Chef, and many others.¬†In terms of professional goals, I gave a talk on unconscious bias in hiring and actually came in under time, which was a first. Folks got to go to lunch on time! ūüėČ

You can see the video of my talk here:

Obligatory pictures from the conference must also be shared, because they prove we had fun and were productive in our conferencing:

The Less-Cheerful Part

DevOpsDays Tel Aviv wasn’t all sunshine and roses because no conference ever is, but it was a well-run conference that had one snag for me. To be “crystal clear,” I don’t think the organizers could’ve predicted or proactively addressed this very easily. There was a¬†thing that happened during the conference that I have been trying to figure out how to talk about, and it’s still not clear to me how I should talk about this, but I do think I should say something, so I’m going to try.

I was discussing hiring processes in startups with a small crowd after my talk. All but one of the people surrounding me appeared to be cisgender men, and all of them were white or white-passing. Some of the attendees were very enthusiastic about my work, asking questions about what they could do to improve their company’s diversity of workforce and make a workplace more inclusive, accessible, and friendly to a range of employees. One person, however,¬†took a stance that I found deeply problematic. Naturally, this was the person who took up the majority of my post-talk time. That’s how this kind of thing works, after all.

This man asked to speak with me about how to hire women into his company, and potentially People of Color (PoCs). A¬†topic about which I am very enthusiastic! When I engaged with him, however, it turned out that he wanted to talk about the reasons why he felt his company couldn’t hire any women or PoCs.

Israeli tech culture is different from US tech culture, and faces different problems, just like Israeli society has¬†different challenges than US society. Israeli culture has racism¬†that is different in some ways from American racism. While I can’t claim to really “get it,” because I don’t live there, I did take a class on Israeli/Palestinian history and I do live in the world as a Jew, so I think I understand some aspects of Israeli race issues. Most of Israeli¬†societal and economic power is concentrated in specifically white Jews, with Jewish PoCs coming in a distant second, and a decided lack of resources or power for Palestinians (most of whom are PoCs, some of whom are Jewish, actually, but that’s another whole thing). I don’t think that’s a controversial statement so much as a well-known fact.

Asking Israeli tech companies why they couldn’t establish an internship program specifically for Palestinian Israelis was a serious¬†non-starter at this conference, even in Tel Aviv, which is considered to be a very politically progressive city. Yes, I did suggest it a few times. I was laughed at by this man. I still think it’s a good idea. I knew it wasn’t likely to be taken seriously by many companies, though, going into it.

Something I didn’t really understand¬†before attending this conference was how very gender essentialist¬†Israeli society can be. Perhaps I should have thought about it more beforehand; after all, Hebrew as a language is incredibly invested in a gender binary, and there’s a compelling theory about how language informs cognition and perception.¬†Jewish religious traditions¬†(particularly the most traditional parts of Jewish religious practice) are¬†very invested in gender binary and gender separation. During this conference, I even learned that Hebrew doesn’t have a “singular they” that’s gender-neutral; it has a female-coded “they” and a male-coded “they,” grammatically speaking.

So getting back to the conversation at hand: my interlocutor, this¬†Israeli man, started telling me why¬†his company couldn’t hire any women because the only women interested in working in tech were Orthodox Jewish women. Orthodox women, he argued, would not be able to keep up with a tech job because they don’t have computers or smartphones at home.

Let’s set aside whether or not there’s some reason why Orthodox women wouldn’t have a computer or a smartphone for personal use. I’m not Orthodox (although I am Jewish), and I’m not Israeli. I don’t see a reason why a Shabbat-observant Jew couldn’t have a computer at home that just, you know, isn’t used during Shabbat. It’s possible I just don’t understand what he was trying to say.

What he did communicate to me is that this guy was trying to rationalize why his company couldn’t hire women. That bugged me. It continues to bug me. Sorry, “bug” isn’t strong enough a term — I am still outraged when I think of this. He wasn’t interested in any of the solutions I recommended — an internship program, outreach into local schools (and not just military organizations, since Israeli tech has enough of that already), explicit on-the-job-training — because he seemed, to my mind, to be fixated on the idea that his company Just Couldn’t Hire Women (or PoCs, although he thankfully didn’t get far into where his racist assumptions took him).

The reason he gave for not hiring women also presumably has no legitimacy!¬†Separation of work and home life, and a balanced life, should theoretically mean that one’s equipment at home has no bearing on work because home is not where one works.

I spend a lot of time talking with people around the world about the benefits of diversifying the workforce, creating inclusive environments, and eliminating barriers to same. Talking with this person about his mindset was a frustrating experience, in no small part because he arrived at the conversation with his mind made up. I was left wondering why he approached me at all, given the direction of the conversation.

I don’t think anything in this post is a surprise to folks working in tech (in Israel or elsewhere), but I wanted to note the experience, nonetheless. Ignoring it or hiding it would be adding to the oppression.

(Note: I originally wrote this in January, but apparently it never posted, so I’m posting it now.)

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