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Why are haredi women majoring in computer science?

The Israel Democracy Institute's yearbook sheds light on just how far ultra-Orthodox women have come in joining the workforce.

Haredi women study computer science. Photo by Noam Revkin-Fenton.
Haredi women study computer science. Photo by Noam Revkin-Fenton.
Sonia Gorodeisky. Source: Facebook.
Sonia Gorodeisky

In recent weeks, the importance of core studies in Israel’s ultra-Orthodox sector has been widely discussed in the context of political coalition funds, which include billions of shekels for haredi educational institutions that do not teach core studies, thus reducing the chances of haredi children integrating into the job market in the future.

In the meantime, data on the ground shows a considerable improvement in recent years in some of the numbers related to haredi education and employment.

So, for example, the proportion of utra-Orthodox students taking high school matriculation exams, even if they are not eligible for a bagrut matriculation certificate, rose from 24% in 2008 to 44% in 2021. Between 2016 and 2021, the proportion of those eligible for matriculation in the haredi sector increased from 2% to 6% among males and from 20% to 25% among females (2016-2021).

This data is based on the 2023 edition of the Israel Democracy Institute’s yearbook on the ultra-Orthodox sector, which has been published for eight years and reviews the changes that have taken place in recent decades in various fields, including education, employment and lifestyle.

At the beginning of 2023, there were 156,036 yeshiva students in the haredi sector, the survey also reports. This was after a year in which the increase of the number of yeshiva students slowed down to 2.5% in 2022, at the end of which the haredi parties joined the coalition, and increased again by 4.1%.

This number of haredi yeshiva students includes unmarried men, most of whom are under 23 years old, and married men, most of whom have been studying for many years, even over age 31, the age when they would lose their exemptions from military service if they are not studying Torah full-time.

Israel Democracy Institute researchers point out the clear connection between the presence of haredi parties in the government coalition and the rate of growth in the number of haredi yeshiva students. Since 1999, the only years that showed a decrease in this number were 2013-2014.

The ultra-Orthodox population in Israel numbers approximately 1,335,000 people, which is 13.6% of the total population. Persons up to age 19 comprise 58% of the haredi population compared to 31% in the general Jewish population. In 2030, the haredi population is expected to reach 16% of the total population, while there are expected to be about one million haredim up to the age of 20, who will constitute 25% of this age group.

Tech professions a priority

About 16,700 haredi students, 5% of all students, studied in institutions of higher education in the 2022/23 academic year. Their number increased this year by about 900 students, an increase of 7%. Sixty-nine percent of haredi students are women.

Fifteen percent of haredi female students are studying computer science (compared to 13.5% among non-haredi female students). This is a jump of 63% in four years. The proportion of haredi men studying computer science among all haredi students is significantly lower than the proportion among non-haredi Jewish students (19% versus 28.5%, respectively).

Dr. Gilad Malach and Dr. Lee Cahaner, from the Israel Democracy Institute, editors of the Haredi Society Yearbook, point out that “there is a clear trend towards a rise in the standard of living of haredi households as a result of a rise in the number of working haredi women and a renewed increase in the rate of working haredi men after a few years of treading on the same spot.”

Malach explains the data in a conversation: “The haredi society is a ‘studying society’ that directs its sons to focus on learning Torah, and this has led to a dramatic change in the role of women in this society. If a few decades ago they were employed as teachers, today, in order to support the household, they have to work in high-quality positions, in many cases in professions in the field of technology.

“As a result, the curriculum in haredi high schools for girls changed rapidly, and now includes English, mathematics and technological subjects,” he continues. “The training curriculum in the high school seminaries, which in recent years also offers a variety of technological tracks, has changed. Many haredi women prefer to undergo technological training in a full academic track, generally on a haredi campus, resulting in a situation where the percentage of women studying computer science is even higher than non-haredi women.

“This change allows many married yeshiva students to continue studying in yeshiva, and we have therefore seen an increase in recent years in the number of married students that does not fall short of the general rate of growth of the haredi society. The only cases in which the increase in the number of married yeshiva students was stopped was due to strong economic pressure on the haredi society, or when support for Torah studying decreased.

“We saw this in 2003 when [state-paid monthly] child allotments were cut, and in 2013 with the cut of the yeshiva budget. We may also see this in the near future as a result of the expected economic crisis following the war or as a result of new priorities set by the next government,” Malach says.

Record employment

Another optimistic figure relates to the field of employment in the haredi society. In 2023, a record was registered in the number of employed women and men: About 110,000 ultra-Orthodox men in the prime working age group (25-64), which comprise 55% of haredi men, are working—a figure that has not been seen since 1995. This is a continuation of the increase observed in 2022 to about 53%, after a stagnation of rates at 50%-52% in 2015-2021.

Moreover, in 2023, the number of working haredi women of prime working age crossed the 80% threshold for the first time and jumped to 157,000, an increase from 142,000 last year. It should be noted that the 2023 figures are correct for the first three quarters of the year, and the final figure for 2023 may be lower, especially among haredi men, due to the situation in the Israeli economy and coalition funds for Torah institutions.

However, the average monthly income for haredi men dropped from 76% in 2003 to 50% of the average monthly income among non-haredi Jews in 2021. In this year, this amount stood at 9,707 shekels (approximately $2,600) compared to 19,279 shekels (about $5,200) among non-haredi Jewish men. In that year, haredi women earned an average of 8,230 shekels (around $2,200) a month, 67% of the average monthly income among non-haredi Jewish women of 12,330 shekels (some $3,300).

A drop in poverty

There has been a decrease in the incidence of poverty among haredi families from 39% in 2015 to 34% in 2021, a very high figure in comparison to the general population (21% in 2021).

The decrease may be a result of an increase in the employment rate of haredi women and an increase in the level of income among employees, together with an increase in state support for married yeshiva students and child allotments. In addition, the proportion of haredi children who lived below the poverty line after payments of child allotments was 47% in 2021.

Household income: A 19% increase has been registered in gross monthly income for a haredi household over six years—from 12,616 shekels (around $3,400) in 2015 to 14,978 shekels in 2021 (about $4,000)—but this amount is still 55% lower than the gross income for the generally smaller non-haredi Jewish households of 22,047 shekels (some $5,900).

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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