The unholy trinity of ultra-orthodox women in the high-tech industry

Ultra orthodox women work on their computers at the Malam Group IT company in Beitar Illit. 2009. Photo by Nati Shohat/Flash90

How do ultra-orthodox women who face many community restrictions integrate into  professional employment? How do different aspects of religiosity — the monitoring of women’s sexuality and the strong social ties — affect the ability to negotiate work-family policies that fit their ultra-religious  lifestyle?

Our research published in Gender & Society is based on many years of observations and interviews with ultra-orthodox women and their managers in the Israeli high-tech industry. We conducted observations at work and interviews with ultra-orthodox women and their managers, as well as state officials who are responsible for formatting labor policy. We examine how three patriarchal institutions — the state, the ultra-orthodox community and the labor market  compromise to allow ultra-religious women to enter the labor force.  These women must meet contradictory demands of the state, their religious community and the employer. However, their affiliation to an organized religious organization does enhance the religious community leader’s power to negotiate vis-à-vis the employers.

The systems by which these women are allowed employment are complicated and contradictory. The Israeli state seeks to reduce the funds given to underprivileged groups in the welfare state, including their ultra-orthodox community. To this end the state promotes the employment of ultra-Orthodox women in a field with a shortage of workers. 

The women’s employment provides relatively high wages to them and their families. But to ensure the entry of ultra-orthodox women into the labor market, the state must cooperate with the ultra-orthodox authorities which enjoy considerable political power in Israel and which strictly control these women’s  daily lives.

Employers who need cheap workers participate in this agreement to provide unique working conditions for ultra-orthodox women, and in return  receive state financial support that makes the employment of ultra-Orthodox women economically worthwhile.

From the point of view of all three of these patriarchal institutions, it is important that women enter paid employment, but this has nothing to do with ensuring gender equality or improved working conditions.

How do the ultra-orthodox women manage to conduct themselves at work?

They achieve unique benefits that allow them a  balance  caring for their large families, meeting religious obligations, and work demands. For example, unlike their secular colleagues in the high-tech industry, they manage to limit their working hours with almost no overtime and no work from home on weekends as this is restricted by the religious authorities. They are not required to travel abroad, so they do not have to be away from home or neglect  maternal duties. They take frequent maternity leave according to the rabbis’ requirements for community expansion. In addition, employers must provide them segregated  women-only spaces, in order to reduce their interaction with men,  to meet the strict dictates of religious rules on modesty.

The Findings

Our findings show that the penetration of the male dominated religious community into the work space produces for these women a substitute for a strong and capable union for collective bargaining.  

The intersectionality of religion and gender can be both repressing and empowering. Thus, we must pay attention to the role of power relations and organized systems in negotiating work-family policies.

Michal Frenkel is an Associate Professor and the Chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She has published extensively on gender, race, nationality,and religiosity within and around organizations.

Varda Wasserman is Associate Professor at the Open University of Israel in the Department of Management and Economics. She is an organizational sociologist  interested in organization aesthetics, organizational control and resistance, embodiment and gender identities (femininities and masculinities). 

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