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Article – Women in telecoms: Diversity needs buy-in from board level to drive change – Global Telecoms Business

Companies need to be accelerating innovation and transformation – and women need to be a part of that process. Agnes Stubbs looks at what leading companies are doing

At the recent Advancing Women in Telco panel at International Telecoms Week (ITW) held in Chicago, a panel consisting of four top executives at some of the world’s leading telcos admitted that should they depart their companies tomorrow, their immediate successor would most likely not be a woman.

Data from the GSMA’s 2015 survey of gender diversity in the telecoms sector showed that in three-quarters of telecoms companies surveyed, women accounted for under 40% of the workforce. The findings also revealed that the gender gap becomes more pronounced with seniority. Among those surveyed, under 20% of senior leadership roles are held by women, in all regions except North America.

ITW panel member Mardia van der Walt, recently appointed SVP of Deutsche Telekom ICSS, believes gender diversity has to be addressed long before women enter the industry. It begins bottom up – with education.

For most of its history, the telecoms industry has been male-dominated, predominantly focused on maths, science and engineering. In order to turn history and tradition on its heels, “we need to ensure that young women are entering these fields of studies. Otherwise, we lose them by the time they choose their specialities in universities.”

Deutsche Telekom is doing its part by acting as a partner with the University for Applied Sciences in Leipzig. Students are taught concepts and methods used in business information systems. Upon graduation they will then have the opportunity to build their career with the company.

brooks-mccorcle-president-attBrooks McCorcle, president of AT&T Business Solutions, pointed to the impact women have had at the company – 20,000 are in STEM-oriented jobs, and around 5,000 patents have been authored, or co-authored, by women. “We see women as a huge part of our innovation and growth. But in order to drive diversity, we have to be intentional and prescriptive.”

Part of that means planning every step of the employee lifecycle. The first stage is in identifying talent and ensuring that women – and diversity – are represented on every level.
Helping students

AT&T Aspire is an initiative designed to help students graduate from high school and prepare for college and careers within the industry. AT&T has spent $250 million of a planned investment of $350 million in education between 2008 and 2017.

Once candidates are in their positions, the second step is to follow through with development and leadership programmes such as its Executive Women’s Leadership initiative, which gives potential leaders exposure to senior executives within the industry. “These are networking opportunities driven by frank conversations and the sharing of experiences,” said McCorcle.

Sean Rutter, managing director of recruitment company KWR, said the issue of diversity was hardly a discussion topic 10 years ago. He has observed a strong push in recent years from supervisory boards for a more diverse workforce. In some cases, the boards or hiring committee were under such pressure to appoint a female that “meritocracy may have taken a backseat,” said Rutter, who warned that doing so could end up hurting a company more in the long term.

Are implementing quotas and stipulating the threshold for female representation a necessary means to an end to drive the pace of gender diversity in the industry? AT&T’s McCorcle does not think so: “I’m not pro quota. I’m pro visibility and transparency. I have a goal to work towards but I am not into forcing it. I have targets, not quotas. Women should be chosen for their capabilities.”

helene_barnekow-teliaHélène Barnekow, CEO of Telia Sweden, said: “Of course I would like for us to not need that as a mandatory requirement,” but added that necessary measures are needed to address the issue. Since taking on her new position last July, Barnekow has stipulated in the company’s recruitment process that women must be included in the shortlist of potential candidates.

“We don’t sign up on any hiring unless both men and women are in the candidate shortlist. We will always hire for competence but we are working with our recruiters to have diversity as a basic requirement,” she said, adding that a more effective method is to “drive culture with competence, irrespective of gender, nationality and industry”.

Attracting more diversity requires casting a wider net, said Michelle Bourque, VP at BCE Nexxia, Bell Canada’s wholesale unit, at ITW. “To attract more talent, we have to
invest in our existing talent and implement more active action to drive initiatives and programmes companywide.”

While companywide programmes and initiatives are required to get the wheels rolling, it will take a wider effort to accelerate gender diversity within the industry, particularly from top down.

To get a good sense of whether the issue of diversity is a priority on an operator’s agenda, Rutter said one just has to look at the representation on the board level. “Look at the supervisory board – that’s the tone from the top. It’s the board that sets the strategy.”

mardia_2Deutsche Telekom’s Van der Walt agreed that a cultural shift from the top is crucial. “It am incredibly conscious about first creating a culture and an environment, because it doesn’t help to bring more women in without creating an environment for them to be successful,” she said, One way she is doing so is to foster an environment that isn’t tolerant of any bias or stereotyping, and instead, “to challenge them”.

She shared an example in which she contested an assumption about a potential female candidate’s inability to travel for work as she was a new mother. “I challenged that stereotype – we interview candidates for their competencies and if shortlisted, it is a discussion to have at the next stage. At the end of the day, that is her choice to make,” said Van der Walt who warned against blocking potential candidates before they are even given the chance to prove themselves. “I have had interviews with pregnant women knowing they will require maternity leave shortly. Doing so sends a strong sign within our organisation about our tolerance and acceptance – that this is part of life.”

To drive a cultural shift in mindsets, Van der Walt said Deutsche Telekom is “very consciously” looking to increase its acquisition pool in all areas of diversity, including gender and nationalities. “If you have under 30% representation of any group, you will not be able to create enough critical mass needed to drive change. You won’t be able to create a culture without a sufficient portion of women in management roles,” she stressed.

Telia’s Barnekow is passionate about setting the tone from the top. To begin with, its board consists of 50% women. “You have to start from the top. If I have just one woman on my leadership team, I send a message that it’s OK. It is so important that we have role models at the top,” she said.

Long term investment

Bell Canada’s leadership programme seeks to develop the next generation of leaders by providing fresh graduates with opportunities to work with the latest technologies in various units at the operator, said Bourque. “That gives them the opportunity for network and meeting with various role models in the company.”

Changing culture requires long term investment and vision, said KWR’s Rutter. “Take a good long look at your executive teams and boards. If you find that you have the same nationalities and ages, then you’ve got a problem which could potentially give you blind spots.”

Flexibility and the openness to hire from outside of telecoms should also be considered. “Very rarely do [telcos] hire from another sector. You know what? Maybe if you do hire these people and give them a great orientation package, it could work,” he said.

Gender diversity in the telecoms sector isn’t just a matter of fairness and equality – it is also a matter of effectiveness. The entire industry is at a critical crossroads, observed AT&T’s McCorcle. With women offering half of the word’s talent, both men and women will need to work together to tackle the oncoming transformation of the sector.

“We are at a very important crossroads of transforming our businesses from a legacy oriented business to a strategic oriented business. My organisation – which is third-party distribution – represents 10% of business solutions revenues and 25% of our strategic growth. We need to be accelerating innovation and transformation. Women need to be a part of that journey with us in order for us to achieve that,” she said.

Maria Grazia Pecorari, chief strategy officer at BT Global Services, shares how the company is driving diversity maria-pecorari-bt

Q: How is BT pushing ahead to address gender equality companywide?

As is the case for much of our sector, BT are male-dominated, but that’s something we are working hard to redress, both by attracting a more diverse set of entrants at every level, and making BT the best place to work for the women who are already with us. No woman in BT should feel like a pioneer in her team.

BT runs a number of programmes aiming to address gender equality. For example, our #womenintechnology programme offers additional support and development to female leaders in technical roles.

Q: What are the challenges in implementing a gender-diverse workforce in this industry?

Unfortunately there is no silver bullet on this issue. BT has done a lot of external consultation, spoken to experts and other organisations; part of the issue is that gender inequality is very ingrained in culture and society across the world.

However, we have some great female role models in BT who have gained valuable insights from experience. For example, that businesses need to sell the case for diversity and inclusion commercially as well as morally. It’s important to set out clear links with what you need to achieve as a business, and pay systematic attention to those aspirations at every career point – recruitment, performance management, promotion. It has to be baked in.

Q: Your advice to women in the industry?

Firstly, becoming a mother can help you become a better professional. The opportunity cost of being away from home goes up. As a result you become more effective and more focused when you are at work, and less tolerant of situations that are not a good use of your time. Secondly, choose your company, choose your boss. The environment in which you operate is very important to your success. You want to spend your time with people that you respect, you can trust, and you have fun working with. When that happens, you also achieve more at work.

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