Israeli program gives girls a boost in math, science

In some industries, women have cracked, if not broken, the glass ceiling. But when it comes to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), there is a paucity of women in these fields all over the world. Even in Israel.

Yes, the Jewish state had one of the first female prime ministers, and many women serve as pilots and combat soldiers in the country’s military.

Israeli Orit Shulman in the Bay Area to promote “Cracking the Glass Ceiling” photo/renee ghert-zand

But when it comes to STEM in Israel, women lag behind: The number of girls who graduate high school with a focus in STEM disciplines is half that of boys, and at one of Israel’s best universities for science and engineering, the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology, only 35 percent of the students are women.

Orit Shulman, director of development and partnerships for the nonprofit Alliance–Kol Israel Haverim, is working to level that playing field. She was recently in the Bay Area to get the word out about a program it runs in Israeli schools.

The program, “Cracking the Glass Ceiling,” supports high school girls, mainly in areas that are socioeconomically disadvantaged. It identifies girls who do well in math and science, then raises their expectations (as well as those of their teachers and parents) for excelling in STEM fields.

The girls are identified in eighth grade, and the program supports them through 12th grade. It’s a major, five-year investment that Alliance believes will pay off in the long run — for both the girls themselves and Israeli society in general.

“In 2012-13,” Shulman said, “91 percent of the girls in the program studied advanced math in high school, and 87 percent of the participants chose at least one scientific [high school] major.”

In the program, girls learn about gender discrimination issues and how to deal with them. Parents and teachers also learn how their own attitudes can impede girls’ success in STEM. In addition, 25 women high-tech entrepreneurs — some of them involved with UpWest Labs, a Palo Alto–based accelerator for Israeli startups — serve as program mentors and role models.

In ninth grade, groups of students are “adopted” by a high-tech company in Israel, including project partners Microsoft, Google, Intel and Cisco. The students visit several times and do a mini-project for the company.

“Cracking the Glass Ceiling,” which offers some information in English on its Facebook page, began five years ago with 80 students, and now involves 700 girls in 17 schools. To help scale up the program, and to expand beyond Jewish schools into Arab ones, Shulman recently met with potential Bay Area funders and supporters, including the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

Shulman believes that focusing on girls makes sense. In the U.S. today, women earn 41 percent of all degrees awarded in STEM fields, but occupy only 28 percent of tenured faculty positions in STEM fields. In Israel, the percentage of women in tenured STEM positions also is 28 percent.

This is attributable, at least in part, to the difficulty women face in balancing career and/or research with raising a family.

“Many of the girls express to us that they are worried about how they can pursue a STEM career and also be wives and mothers,” Shulman said.

There aren’t any easy answers, but Alliance doesn’t want the girls to give up from the get go.

“We know not all these girls will become scientists and engineers,” Shulman said of the program’s participants. “But we want them to be able to choose. We want them to believe in themselves, and to be well prepared so that university STEM programs readily accept them — should that be what they want.”