Women of high tech: Shattering Israel`s glass ceiling

Women high-tech executives in Israel are working hard to overcome what many see as subtle barriers to success.The boon of high-tech development in Israel has brought women the promise of a new economy, one in which companies will provide a …

Women high-tech executives in Israel are working hard to overcome what many see as subtle barriers to success.The boon of high-tech development in Israel has brought women the promise of a new economy, one in which companies will provide a non-hierarchical environment where professional women will be judged by their performance, hard work and skills.

While this new business paradigm is slowly beginning to take hold, women still face resistance from Israel’s traditionally rigid tendencies for gender classification. Some women say there’s still a “glass ceiling” in the Israeli high-tech world, subtle barriers that prevent them from moving up in the corporate hierarchy. They say women executives are concentrated in certain types of jobs that seldom lead to the most powerful top-management posts.

Still, many talented women are overcoming these barriers by working harder, formulating shrewd career strategies and brokering their time-management skills, to forge ahead, past the obstacles, on their way to the top.

One such executive, Peggy Weigle, chief executive of Sanctum, is already at the top. Weigle began her career in the computer industry 18 years ago. Sanctum, her third startup, is the leader in web application security solutions. Before joining Sanctum, Weigle held several senior management positions.

“One of the things that equipped me for becoming a CEO is that I rose through the sales channel. Sales is much less an ‘old boy network,’ and I was judged on my performance…” Weigle said. “I was lucky to have three very strong mentors along the way, who didn’t care if I was male or female.”

But, the “old boy network” still prevails in some circles of Israeli industry, women say. Female executives are frequently excluded from social activities and the networking that goes with them. Many chief executives are veterans of elite army units, which traditionally lock out women.

Speedwise, though, is an exception among Israeli companies, with three women holding down key management positions. The company makes software that helps speed and improve Internet delivery over wireless and landline networks.

Daphna Bahat, vice president of product marketing, is responsible for all aspects of product management and sales. Bahat, who has 15 years of marketing and software engineering experience in the high-tech and telecommunications world, said she tried to position herself early to have a shot at a career in management.

“When I was a student times were even harder than they are today, so I did volunteer work in a computer department to gain experience. While I’ve had some bosses who have viewed me as a woman, I’ve shown that I can do my work like everyone else.”

Neta Weinryb, who serves as director of business development for Speedwise, said she got used to functioning in a male-dominated environment while she was studying electrical engineering at the Technion, where women made up only 5 percent of the students in the department.

She’s been at women-friendly Speedwise from the beginning, including helping to design the company’s first product. As the company grew, she found a niche for herself in the area of business development.

She attributes her professional success to a strong sense of self, developed during her upbringing. “I was raised to believe I could achieve anything I wanted to.”

Tania Elfersy, recently promoted to director of corporate marketing at Speedwise, has spent five years in high tech in marketing communications, a route many English-speaking women in Israel find a natural fit.

“I’ve taken the initiative, taking on projects that were outside the realm of communications, like developing strategic partnerships,” Elfersy said.

In Israel, the chief executive of a major corporation has to become completely submersed in company needs, often sacrificing family or recreational time. The primary responsibility for child rearing is placed on women, which has tended to exclude them from demanding management positions.

Bahat, a mother of three, said she has coped with motherhood through adroit scheduling, finding ways to constantly make the most effective use of her time.

“I don’t feel that I have sacrificed anything. I just have balanced my time differently. I always have someone at home to take care of the children, and help with homework. When I come home I am able to just be with the kids. After they go to bed, I turn on my laptop and continue working.”

Elfersy also thinks good time-management skills are essential for women in high tech who aspire to the top.

“My position does demand that I pull long hours,” Elfersy said. “I often have to be available for a midnight conference call or an e-mail to the States. I try to set limits and deal with each crisis on a case-by-case basis regarding priority and work urgency.”

Lea Korner is vice president of Enterprise IP Telephony at AudioCodes, a company that designs, develops and markets enabling technologies and communication subsystems for the transmission of voice, fax and data over packet networks. AudioCodes is a leading provider of technologies that are driving the development of equipment for these emerging markets.

Korner said she has managed her life by developing “sensitivity to understanding and balancing issues. I have never neglected family for career or vice versa. What I can achieve in 10 hours may take someone else 14. It’s really a question of efficiency, cleverness and making firm decisions.”

“I have never felt held back as a woman,” Korner said. “I have been lucky to have been evaluated based on performance, and my professionalism was always appreciated.”

Weigle, who has been married for 14 years, made the decision not to have children a long time ago. She has “spent a lot of time on airplanes. To do this you have to be set up for a very busy lifestyle. What’s most important is your capacity to deal with multi-faceted problems.”

Women have to fight against the popular perception that they are less committed to careers and less willing to take risks. Some women fear the unflattering “abrasive” image that is often attached to female ambition. Many
women also say that they are held to higher standards than men.

Elfersy has tried to develop a formula for dealing with the frustrations of these double standards. “You have to be flexible, which means being assertive when you need to be, and then leaving it on the side when you don’t need it anymore.”

A good networking system and positive role models are also critical to success. Weigle advises women “to work for an individual who is gender-neutral. If you have a manager who doesn’t view you as an equal on the playing field with your peers, based purely on your performance, then leave. Go someplace else.”

Still there are no substitutes for old-fashioned hard work. Korner recommends “hard, hard work. It’s important to remain open and learn from whatever environment you are in,” while Weinryb reminds women to “believe in themselves, set clear goals for themselves, and never give up on what they really want to do.”

Elfersy urges women “Not to be intimidated by technology. I think technology is a wonderful thing. I have accessed new skills and knowledge working in high tech. I have learned a lot.”

“If you are determined enough, you will succeed,” she said.