It’s not what you know but where you come from: Cognitive skills, job autonomy and latent discrimination of ethnic minorities in Israel


Job autonomy – employees’ freedom to schedule and organise their work independently according to their own experience and preferences – is a major factor in job satisfaction. However, it is not granted to many employees in Israel, and the authors of this article were interested in the reasons for this. Based on data from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), they investigated the association between cognitive skills and job autonomy among Israeli-born Jews, Arabs and immigrants from the former Soviet Union (FSU) living in Israel. They considered PIAAC data for cognitive skills in three key domains: literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments. In line with social homophily theory (which explains bonding tendencies among socially similar people), the authors’ findings show different effects of cognitive skills on job autonomy between the three groups. Whereas cognitive skills were positively correlated with job autonomy among Israeli-born Jews and partially among Arabs, these effects were insignificant among FSU immigrants. The findings suggest that in the case of FSU immigrants, a latent form of discrimination is taking place: they are not being rewarded for their credentials and skills with job autonomy. Revealing the discrimination mechanisms affecting job autonomy among ethnic minorities in Israel may help policymakers to overcome ethnic-based inequality and alienation in the labour market. It may also assist the development of new approaches that tap into skills currently being ignored and thereby increase employees’ well-being.


Ce qui compte n’est pas ce que vous savez mais d’où vous venez : compétences cognitives, autonomie professionnelle et discrimination latente des minorités ethniques en Israël – L’autonomie professionnelle, la liberté des employés de planifier et d’organiser leur travail de façon indépendante, en fonction de leur expérience et de leurs préférence, est un facteur primordial pour la satisfaction professionnelle. Toutefois, il n’est pas donné à beaucoup d’employés en Israël d’en jouir, et les auteures de cet article se sont intéressées aux raisons à cela. En s’appuyant sur des données du Programme pour l’évaluation internationale des compétences des adultes (PIAAC-Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies), elles ont examiné l’association entre les compétences cognitives et l’autonomie professionnelle chez les juifs nés en Israël, les Arabes et les immigrants de l’ex-Union soviétique installés en Israël. Elles ont pris en compte des données du PIAAC concernant les compétences cognitives dans trois domaines principaux : la littératie, la numératie et la résolution de problèmes dans des environnements à forte composante technologique. Dans l’optique de la théorie d’homophilie sociale (qui explique la tendance à privilégier des relations avec des personnes qui nous ressemblent socialement), les résultats des auteures montrent que dans ces trois groupes les compétences cognitives n’ont pas les mêmes effets sur l’autonomie professionnelle. Alors que les compétences cognitives influent positivement sur l’autonomie professionnelle des juifs nés en Israël et en partie sur celle des Arabes, ces effets sont négligeables pour les immigrants de l’ex-Union soviétique. Les résultats indiquent que ces derniers font l’objet d’une discrimination latente : leurs références et leurs compétences ne sont pas récompensées par une autonomie professionnelle. Révéler les mécanismes discriminatoires qui influent sur l’autonomie professionnelle des minorités ethniques en Israël pourrait aider les décideurs à vaincre les inégalités liées à l’origine ethnique et l’aliénation sur le marché du travail. Cela pourrait aussi contribuer au développement de nouvelles approches qui tireraient profit de compétences actuellement inexploitées, ce qui accroîtrait le bien-être des employés

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  1. 1.

    Human capital refers to “the skills, knowledge, and experience possessed by an individual or population, viewed in terms of their value or cost to an organization or country” (OUO n.d.).

  2. 2.

    On 25 December 1991, the Soviet Union was formally dissolved and broke up into fifteen independent states. Many Jews left the former Soviet Union (FSU) because their country of origin was undergoing a severe social, political and economic crisis. In addition, many of them had to confront anti-Semitic nationalist movements in the post-Soviet period. Pull factors were at work as well due to the Law of Return (Knesset 1950, see footnote 5) that entitles Jewish immigrants to citizenship and economic support as soon as they take their first steps in Israel.

  3. 3.

    In Israel, students who have completed grade 12, the final year of secondary school (high school), and want to enter higher education are required to apply to sit matriculation exams). If they pass them, they are issued a matriculation certificate (called bagrut).

  4. 4.

    The conflict between Jews and Arabs in Israel is one of the deepest and most persistent ruptures in Israeli society. It is highly resistant to resolution, involving deeply entrenched negative perceptions of the out-group. The conflict narratives promote ethnocentric views of past and present events, reinforced by relative group self-segregation and mass media coverage of the conflict.

  5. 5.

    The State of Israel was established in 1948. In 1950, the Knesset, the legislative branch of the Israeli government, passed the Law of Return. It is relevant for foreign-born Jews who wish to settle in Israel. It stipulates that “Every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh [a Jew immigrating into Israel] (Knesset 1950, Article 1).

  6. 6.

    Formal education refers to traditional schooling followed by university or college; it is documented by certificates. Informal education occurs as unplanned learning in the course of daily activities and is not documented. Within the lifelong learning spectrum, these two kinds of learning are complemented by non-formal education, which is provided outside the formal education framework to suit learners’ needs in different contexts.

  7. 7.

    Explained variance refers to the fitness of a statistical model. The higher the explained variance, the better the explanation of the dependent variable by the independent variables.

  8. 8.

    Organisational behaviour research investigates human behaviour in organisational settings, the interface between human behaviour and the organisation, and the organisation itself.

  9. 9.

    “Homophily is the principle that a contact between similar people occurs at a higher rate than among dissimilar people. The pervasive fact of homophily means that cultural, behavioral, genetic, or material information that flows through networks will tend to be localized.” (McPherson et al. 2001, p. 416).

  10. 10.

    According to a 2014 social survey based on a large representative sample, 82% of the senior officials and managers were veteran Jews, 8% were Arabs, 8% were immigrants from the FSU and 2% were classified as other (CBS 2016).

  11. 11.

    We accessed the data for the 2014–15 survey from the OECD’s dedicated PIAAC website at

  12. 12.

    Descriptive statistics summarise components of a data set.

  13. 13.

    SPSS is IBM statistical analysis software.

  14. 14.

    Plausible values refer to a range of possible values, instead of a single estimated value. Sampling weights try to counterbalance sampling bias by correcting for systematic differences in probability sampling.

  15. 15.

    Cronbach’s alpha measures the reliability of index, which is the average of questionnaire items.

  16. 16.

    Latent variables are variables which are not directly observed but rather inferred (through a mathematical model) from other variables that are observed (directly measured).

  17. 17.

    Item response theory (IRT) is a paradigm for the design, analysis and scoring of tests, questionnaires and similar instruments measuring abilities, attitudes or other variables. It is a theory of testing based on the relationship between individuals' performances on a test item and the test takers' levels of performance on an overall measure of the ability that item was designed to measure.

  18. 18.

    More information can be found in OECD (2016c).

  19. 19.

    In this context, primary (or elementary) education refers to Grades 1–6, while secondary education (or high school) refers to Grades 7–12.

  20. 20.

    An ln variable is the natural logarithm of a number to the base of the mathematical constant “e”, where “e” is an irrational and transcendental number approximately equal to 2.718281828459.

  21. 21.

    Linear regression models are a linear approach to modelling the relationship between a scalar response (or dependent variable) and one or more explanatory variables (or independent variables).

  22. 22.

    The two largest groups of Jewish people living in Israel today are Ashkenazi and Sephardi. Ashkenazi Jews’ ancestors are from Germany, France and Eastern Europe. Sephardi Jews have Spanish, Portuguese, North African and Middle Eastern ancestors.

  23. 23.

    Mediation is a hypothesised causal chain in which one variable affects a second variable that, in turn, affects a third variable. The intervening variable is the mediator. It “mediates” the relationship between a predictor and an outcome.


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Lissitsa, S., Chachashvili-Bolotin, S. It’s not what you know but where you come from: Cognitive skills, job autonomy and latent discrimination of ethnic minorities in Israel. Int Rev Educ 66, 341–362 (2020).

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  • cognitive skills
  • job autonomy
  • ethnic minorities
  • latent discrimination