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Intel Israel: Pioneer Employer of Women

Intel Israel General Manager Maxine Fassberg tells Tali Heruti-Sover about her struggles in the male-dominated high-tech industry — which needs "equal opportunities for men and women alike to enter the industry and move on side by side."
An Intel logo is seen at the company's offices in Petah Tikva, near Tel Aviv October 24, 2011. REUTERS/Nir Elias (ISRAEL - Tags: BUSINESS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY LOGO) - RTR2T4QI

There is no need to invite Maxine Fassberg to a conference for women. She just won't show up. Fassberg, Intel Israel's general manager and vice-president of technology and manufacturing for Intel Corp., employs over 8,000 workers. She's virtually the lone woman on the list of CEOs of major high-tech companies in Israel. But although she works to promote women in high-tech, she has a clear agenda: women's conferences, as well as magazines and websites specifically targeting women, are out of bounds. “In my experience, differentiated groups are not doing a good job,” she says. “We [women] can go on talking without end with each other; however, we must get them [the men], too, into the picture.”

All the same, Fassberg does take part in one important group of women. Recently, 24 women holding senior positions in Intel Europe gathered to take proactive action to build a strong pipeline of talented women and to groom them for managerial posts in the company. “If we ourselves do not take action to assure the nomination of women as the next vice presidents for Intel Corporation, who will?” says Fassberg. “However, I joined the group on condition that at least one man is appointed to the board and that we attain our goals and wrap up our activity within two years.”

So, can we look forward to the appointment of the first woman as president of Intel Corp. in the near future? “If a woman can be elected as the United States president, there is certainly a fair chance of a woman being appointed as president of Intel Corporation," she says.

Maxine Fassberg began her career as a teacher — an occupation that is typically regarded, at least in Israel, as a female line of work. In the late 1970s, she started teaching chemistry and physics in some of the more prestigious high schools in Jerusalem. Within two years, she was assigned the role of a grade coordinator.

After six years, she decided that it was time to move on. “I had aspirations to become a school manager,” she recalls. “Luckily for me, they had opened a new high school in Jerusalem then, and I thought that it was just the job for me. After all, serving as a grade coordinator in a technological high school like ORT [Israel’s leading science and technology educational network], with a predominantly male student population, was no doubt an appropriate training for the job.” The year was 1982, and Fassberg was invited for an interview at the city hall. “There was a long, black table in the room, and the interviewers sitting around the table were all men,” she recounts. “Their response was straightforward. You are a nice lady, they told me, and one day you are going to be an excellent manager, but it is still too early. Come back in 20 years.” Fassberg was disappointed. She didn't think she could wait that long.

At the time, Jerusalem's first local semiconductor production plant was under construction, for an American corporation named Intel. (Semiconductors form the heart of modern electronics.) A good friend's husband, who had joined the venture some time before, told Fassberg that it was the right place for her and suggested that she submit her resume. “I did not even know what a ‘resume’ was and had no idea how to write one,” she says. “He sat with me to write down the document and took it himself to the plant. He did not count on me to do it, and he was apparently right. At the time, the name Intel said nothing to me and I did not know where I was heading.”

She was invited for a series of job interviews for the position of development engineer and passed them all successfully. There was a problem, though: training for the job was to take place in the United States, and she had a little child to take care of. “Had it not been for the support of my spouse, I would not have done it,” she says. “Over our years together there were times when he was working around the clock, while at other times, I had to work long hours. My eldest son almost never met his father until the age of three, as he was doing his internship as a doctor at the time and usually stayed at the hospital overnight. Well, it was my turn then and we went to the United States, where my husband had a chance to take it easy for a while and to get to know our son.”

Fassberg had one of her most formative experiences in the US at a joint meeting of Israeli and American engineers. “We were sitting at a round table, fifty men or so and only two women, and doing a round of introductions. When they got to me, one of the participants asked me: ’And whose wife are you?’ Looking at him straight in the eye, I said: ’You are asking the wrong question. I am an engineer, just like you. Why do you think that I am present here on account of someone else?’ There was a pause and he was most embarrassed.”

It was 1983 then, but such questions are still being asked even today. “Unfortunately, that’s right," she says. "And although the situation at present is much better, the question may still be asked. To prevent it from happening, I have forbidden asking interviewees for jobs at Intel, ‘How many children do you have?’ It is the sort of question that women — but never men — are always faced with. In the past, if an [Intel] interviewer was nonetheless asking that question, I would tell him to ask the next candidate the very same question. These days, you no longer hear it so frequently (and it is only because I do not allow it); however, prejudice is not that easy to get rid of, and most people still believe that it is the mother who has to take care of children."

“On the other hand,” Fassberg adds, “I would like to note that nowadays, shared parenting has become far more popular, and it is based on the understanding that a household needs an income and that money has no gender.”

It was difficult to struggle against the prejudice that blocked the promotion of women in the organization. To illustrate how difficult — but nonetheless possible — it was, Fassberg talks about an American woman who came to Israel in 1996 to hold workshops on cultural diversity. (Cultural diversity presumes that cultural, linguistic and personal differences may contribute to a richer and more creative, innovative and efficient staff. The underlying idea is to account for the unique characteristics of underprivileged minority groups and use them for the better.)

“She was a ball of energy,” Fassberg says. “And she had an answer to every question. At some point someone commented that it would be better not to hire women, as they were always getting pregnant. ‘I have a great solution — no more sex!’ the American guide suggested. The message was clear — children do not come into the world on their own; they usually have fathers. Ever since, each time the issue of women promotion was raised for discussion, I used to cite her solution: ‘No more sex!’ It took maybe five years, but eventually, the issue was removed from the agenda.”

And yet, only a few women hold senior positions in Israel's high-tech industry in Israel. Can she explain it? “First, it is because as expected, we tend to replicate our environment in our own image, the way that we feel comfortable with. They accuse me, too, of the same bias, as there are quite a number of women employed by Intel. However, most organizations are still managed by men, and they hire to work other men. It is thus of the highest importance that we have as many feminine role models as possible, who would stimulate young women to enter the industry.”

Is this the only reason? “Quite often, from early childhood on, we are acting according to stereotypes. Girls are expected to play with dolls and such behavior is encouraged by their environment. Then, when they reach high school, they have already given up on math. As a result, they opt out of [science and] technology studies and consequently, they are excluded from the high-tech industry. Not long ago I happened to visit the Weizmann Institute of Science. I was asked there why was it that girls avoided the science and technology disciplines. The solution I halfheartedly proposed was separate classes for boys and girls. It has been shown by research done on the issue that when girls study in single-sex, girls-only classes, they achieve high scores, even in the scientific disciplines. However, when studying in mixed classes, they seem to lose the drive to succeed in science, technology or math. We should encourage girls to take on science and technology studies. Therefore, we, at Intel, have launched a program that is designed to remove the barriers standing on their way and to cultivate and empower the next generation of women in high-tech.”

The third reason cited by Fassberg for the small number of women who make a career in high tech is “the high dropout percentage among women in high tech after they have children.” 

“We have realized that brilliant women in Israel take maternity leave and never return,” Fassberg says in frustration. “We have thus devised a program for their gradual return to work, which allows mothers to babies in their first year to work part time, so that they can still spend time with the baby and are spared feelings of guilt for not being around when they are most needed. The program has been adopted by Intel Corp. worldwide, as well as by other organizations in Israel. Mothers should be given the opportunity to experience motherhood.”

Fassberg has another ambitious plan, which she recently observed abroad: allowing new parents, both mothers and fathers, to bring babies up to the age of nine months to the office. “If it makes it easier for the parents to come to work, then why not?”

Some organizations of women seek to introduce affirmative action to encourage more women to enter the industry. “Positive discrimination I would certainly not recommend, as it is liable to undermine the organization," she says. "A manager should hire the best person, whether a man or a woman. Likewise, there is no need for any affirmative action. There is a potential workforce of women out there. We should only be wise enough to tap it. In 1996, when we were about to set up the first plant in Qiryat Gat [in southern Israel], I served as manager of the engineering department. We interviewed at the time 800 candidates for various positions in the plant. Only 70 of the candidates were ultimately selected, 27 of them women. None of the women were hired on the basis of affirmative action. They were all chosen on their own merit. And I was not the only one to decide it — I was aided in the process by male colleagues. It is interesting to note that many of those women are currently serving in senior positions in the company. There should be no positive discrimination nor any affirmative action. What’s needed is equal opportunities for men and women alike to enter the industry and move on side by side.”

What is, in her opinion, the major advantage for women in the high-tech industry or in any industry? “I once sent an employee of mine for a year with the Boeing company, to observe firsthand how far-reaching change processes were implemented in the face of opposition on the part of the rather conservative workers’ committee. Deeply impressed by the outcome, I asked the company’s CEO how he had done it. 'After failing several times,' he said in reply, 'I realized that what I really needed were agents of change, and the best at it are women. So I hired a woman to manage the Boeing 737 line, and it made all the difference.' I suppose that he is right.”

What would she tell a young woman who aspires to be Intel's CEO? "Get going. Enter the sphere of technology. Go and study — and rather than law studies, opt for math and physics."

Tali Heruti-Sover is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and the editor of the entrepreneur, career and management sections of The Marker, the leading economic daily newspaper in Israel.

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