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17 October 2017
| Alan Burkitt-Gray
It may be 2017, but prejudice is still rife in the industry, say nine leading telecoms women. What are companies doing about it, asks Alan Burkitt-Gray, and how are executives fighting discrimination?
Have you experienced discrimination, I ask Cynthia Gordon,
former CEO of Millicom Africa and now a senior board director
of Tele2 and the Swedish investment group Kinnevik. "Absolutely
I have," retorts Gordon, "and I would argue I still am, but now
it’s a lot more subtle". That’s a
response I got from most of the nine senior women in telecoms I
spoke to for this feature. "Discrimination?
There’s a wide variety of it – but now it
comes in very subtle forms," says Mardia van der Walt
(Niehaus), senior vice president at Deutsche
Telekom’s International Carrier Sales &
Sometimes it’s explicit, sometimes hidden.
"I’ve encountered hidden gender bias throughout my
career," says Mary Clark, Syniverse’s chief
corporate relations officer and chief of staff.
"I’ve consistently seen it appear in my career in
whatever role. I don’t think I’ve
personally suffered by unconscious bias – but I
Sometimes it comes as a nasty shock. Gagun Gahir came out of
university to a role in a call centre for a global carrier. "It
was so diverse. It reflected my vision of the world, that if
you work hard you’ll get to where you want to."
But she was asked to move up to the corporate level. "That was
completely different," says Gahir, now Telstra’s
regional manager for voice in EMEA and the US. Telstra is "is a
very positive experience" compared with the "sea of men" in the
company she joined when she was starting out.
Ciena’s Keri Gilder, vice president and general
manager for EMEA, sighs: "Telecoms is a very male-based sector
anyway. As a woman you can’t come into this
industry if you’re faint of heart."
There are still unpleasant experiences, says Stephanie
Lynch-Habib, now chief marketing officer at Colt.
She’s worked in the industry 21 years. "When
we’re talking about the gender gap
I’d find it hard to find anyone who
hasn’t experienced it. I come across people who
find it challenging to work with a high-performing woman.
Everything is perceived as a threat rather than a
Clark points to a CEB – now Gartner –
survey that shows only 21% of leaders are women. "I think that
number is outrageous," she says. "As in any technology
environment, telecoms is so male dominated."
It is, but it’s better than it used to be. In
one of her first jobs Michelle Senecal de Fonseca, now Northern
Europe area vice president for Citrix, couldn’t
attend an appointment her boss had sent her to because "it was
at an all-men’s club and I wasn’t
allowed in", she recalls. "I never made it into the
Niehaus still shudders at the memory of a presentation she
attended when she was in her early twenties. "The guy used a
pointer in the form of a woman’s body. You
can’t even think of it now. All the guys laughed,
but I was seething."
And it’s not just the tech sector. Catherine
Lynch, now chief people officer at Liberty
Global’s British and Irish cable operator Virgin
Media, was once one of only seven women out of 400 store
managers in the Tesco supermarket chain. "In those days we
weren’t even allowed to wear trousers."
Niehaus recalls a tough time at a former company after
returning from maternity leave. There was a vacancy at the very
top and she was chosen, but for "a lot of guys it was a very
difficult experience", so "I had to be acting CEO" rather than
the actual CEO. "After 11 months I said: 'Make me CEO or
I’m out.’ They were far more cautious
than if I had been a man."
Gilder’s first job was in network architecture
and design, initially for the military, enterprises and large
carriers. "I designed many large carrier networks," she
recalls. "As an engineer you had to prove yourself ten times
more than any male colleague. You had to find quick ways to
show you were the smartest in the room."
Who’s in charge?
It still happens, says Gahir. "I’m of African
and Indian descent and my first name isn’t
gender-specific – so it can be a massive surprise when
I turn up. Customers would address someone in my team as Mr
Gahir – this was when all of my team were men. Now I
have to put 'Ms’ in front of my name to avoid
people being surprised."
Catherine Michel, CTO of software company Sigma Systems, has
had similar experiences. "If I walk into a meeting with a young
male colleague there is a natural assumption that he is the
person in charge and I’m there to assist, even
after I introduce myself as the CTO and he’s the
man working for the CTO," she says.
"I watch out for it. These are perfectly responsible people
but this is unconscious bias."
She adds: "My experience is probably slightly different to
someone 10 years older. They had it extra tough, with more
bias. My experience is that bias is slightly more subtle
– sometimes men aren’t aware what
they’re doing. It’s not from
Is there hope? "There’s a wave of change in
Telstra in terms of its application to gender equality and it
has created an inclusive environment," says Gahir.
Lynch has just put her name to a survey of gender balance in
Virgin Media – see page 53. "We have a legal
requirement to produce a survey by April 2018, but
we’re ahead of our fellow operators. Having done
the analysis I’m pleasantly surprised, although we
can be better."
Says Gilder at Ciena: "My executive team is 50% women, 50%
Citrix’s Senecal de Fonseca agrees: "Diversity
of thought is important – you need people in the
industry that represent consumers and the user base. Why would
you have someone who doesn’t understand?"
Better end product
Michel at Sigma Systems adds: "Where teams are more
gender-balanced I see a higher productivity, better
communication, and a higher quality end product.
It’s because of different perspectives and values.
What I see is a lot more things are thought through. With a
single-gender team things get missed."
Lynch at Virgin Media adds: "An inclusion strategy covers
all forms of potential discrimination. We want to avoid
unconscious bias. It’s about attracting a very
diverse workforce – including background and
That means it’s not just about gender, she
adds. "We need a workforce that represents our customer base
and the market. We’ve done a lot about LGBT and
disability." Virgin Media is partnering this year with Scope, a
prominent UK disability charity and campaign.
So how does the industry get there? For a start, make sure
shortlists for new posts are gender-balanced. Some companies
already specify that women make up at least one third of any
shortlist for a role. "We have to include 50% women," says
Gahir at Telstra. Gordon at Kinnevik finds herself telling
headhunters to try harder if they don’t provide
enough female candidates for a job. "The client has an
obligation to pull them up and I see myself doing that," she
This is all a much-needed effort to overcome what Clark
calls "an unconscious bias" that she has encountered when faced
with rival candidates. "Men will say of another:
'He’s a good guy.’ That reflects a
wealth of inferred skills, personality, and it is recognised by
others including women." But "there’s no
equivalent for women except 'She’s really
good’. Good at what versus 'he’s a
good guy’? Unconscious bias catches up with all of
Men and women plan their careers differently, suggests
Senecal de Fonseca at Citrix. "Women tend to take a new job in
the same organisation, but I’ve found you never
get the same level of pay unless you jump companies," she says.
"Men will say they want to be a CEO by 50. Women put their
heads down and think they will be recognised."
Recruiting women for any role takes longer, with more phone
calls, she adds. "You need to start a couple of years in
advance." If recruiters are serious they should have a
pipeline. "You have to be developing that talent
Lynch is also aware of the challenges of ensuring a supply
of women to fill vacancies. "We need to be more creative about
where we source talent from," she says. "People look at people
who are similar to themselves," says Gordon. "I
wouldn’t be averse to positive discrimination in
Michel notes wryly: "If women are looking for a new job, we
go through the criteria and discount ourselves. But a guy hits
one criterion and says: 'Yes, I’m totally
qualified for the job.’ We have very different
That goes on beyond the recruitment stage and through
employment, says Gilder at Ciena. "Men are comfortable
promoting themselves and I had to learn how to do it." That
means working on more than just being good at the job. "My
rivals focused on pubs and golf. I learned I had to play golf,
and I’m still not very good at it."
Most of the women I spoke to for this feature take part in a
mentoring programme. Many are mentors for younger women in
their companies or even in other companies, and some
acknowledge the support of mentors themselves.
Gordon pays tribute to Cristina Stenbeck, who chairs
Kinnevik. "She gave me opportunity to step outside the
industry." Gordon now chairs Kinnevik’s Global
Fashion Group as well as being a non-executive director of both
Tele2 and Kinnevik itself. She also salutes Anne Bouverot, whom
she met when they both worked at Orange. Bouverot later became
CEO of the GSMA. "She’s very strong," says Gordon.
"I met when I was back from maternity leave at
Men too can be mentors, says Lynch-Habib at Colt: "When
you’re dealing with gender issues you have to look
at the men that stand beside you and not the ones that drag you
down." She is grateful to Bill Archer, former president of
AT&T Europe, now at Eir in Ireland. "He’s one
of my great mentors. He set standards." And she thanks her
current boss at Colt, Tom Regent.
"There is a formal mentoring programme in Ciena," says
Gilder, "and we’re also starting to do it with
other companies, partnering with people at some of our
customers." That’s an approach preferred by
Senecal de Fonseca at Citrix. "I think of mentoring as finding
someone in another company you can support: mentor women from
another company." Mentoring people inside your own company can
create other challenges, she suggests.
Lynch-Habib disagrees. "I keep my eye out for anyone with
high potential, particularly women. I’ve mentored
a young woman I hired into finance a number of years ago. I
push hard." Does that mean she’s a tough person to
work for? "I am. That’s part of my DNA."
Clark says: "Mentoring will help drive the creation of the
kind of leaders we want to have. It will make people think they
are capable of being leaders."
Some companies have taken this one step further, by setting
up women’s groups. "At AT&T I was one of the
founders of AT&T Women in Europe," says
"It created a sense of community, enabling the women who
joined the company to know that they had a route to coaching.
It’s hard work." Now she’s helping to
create Women at Colt groups, country by country.
One of the oldest cross-industry groups in the UK is Women
in Telecoms and Technology, aka WiTT.
"When we started 15 years ago there wasn’t a
place for women to meet," says Senecal de Fonseca, one of the
directors. "It has to be meaningful, not just a place to have
drinks, and our meetings are all on topics about the industry.
You’re so busy doing your day job."
The GSMA and the TM Forum both provide meeting places for
women in the industry. The US cable industry has Women in Cable
Telecommunications, but Lynch is now active in a UK branch,
which is recruiting in BT and Sky as well as at Virgin
Telstra has a group called Brilliantly Connected Women,
"where anyone can share ideas and network with other employees.
It’s a forum where there are strong female
leaders," says Gahir.
"When you’re in the majority it’s
a very different feeling from being in the minority," she
Four of the women I spoke to for this feature
– Gahir, Gilder, Lynch-Habib and Niehaus –
will be taking part in Capacity Europe’s panel on
Advancing Women in Telco at 4:00pm on Wednesday 25 October.
Come and join us and share your
Some companies in the industry publish data that shows how
far they have come and how far they have to go in gender roles
and pay. Many produce nothing. (See below for more
Many companies have produced data about diversity in their
workforce, but some have yet to reveal anything. AT&T has a
comprehensive annual report about diversity and inclusion among
its 270,000 employees in 58 countries, of whom more than 43%
are people of colour and 32% are women.
More than 2,000 – only 0.7% of the workforce
– are LGBT, a tiny number that might say more about
the confidence of LGBT people in AT&T to come out to their
colleagues or their managers. There are 3,400 people with
But that’s better than Verizon, which sent me a
link to its web page on company standards. Under "diversity and
inclusion", Verizon says it has a "100% rating on the
Disability Equality Index (DEI)" and "is the highest rated
technology company when it comes to total commitment to tapping
into military talent". That’s about it.
Norway’s better, surely? Back in 2003 it said
listed companies should have at least 40% women on their boards
or face severe penalties. But lower down the scale, what have
companies reported? "We have not developed such a report," a
Telenor spokeswoman told me by email.
[After this article was published online, Telenor came back
to say that it had answered a specific question from
Capacity about reporting on gender pay gap. The
company spokeswoman added: "We, as other companies you mention,
report and update our stakeholders on gender balance and
diversity of the workforce in our annual report (PDF, pp29-30 and 52-53) and have also a
section on our website focusing on women at Telenor
and balancing the workplace." I am happy to add this
The UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission
is enforcing a law that says companies with more than 250
employees have to file reports about the pay gap and the
proportion of men and women in different pay bands, as well as
This is a European Union law, the Gender Equality Directive
2006 but, according to the human resources department at
Capacity’s parent company, all member
states interpret this differently. UK companies have to file
their reports next year.
Vodafone told me: "We haven’t published gender
pay gap data yet. We’re still gathering the data
across our business worldwide, but will meet the deadline for
UK companies by April 2018."
The company added: "Our medium term goal is to increase the
proportion of senior women managers – including the
senior leadership team – to 30% by 2020. Currently 28%
of Vodafone’s management and leadership roles are
held by women, and 36% of our board are female. Overall, around
37% of Vodafone’s employees worldwide are
BT doesn’t yet have such a report, "but we will
of course be complying with the new reporting requirement which
comes into force next year", the company said. It added:
"We’re proud that BT was named in The
Times’s Top 50 Employers for Women awards
2017. Over 27,000 women now work for us; that’s
25% of our entire workforce. Our management team includes more
than 10,000 women, representing 26% of the total, while our
board is now 27% female, with women accounting for three out of
11 board members."
Orange said: "I’m fairly certain we
don’t publish anything in France or for the
group." Other companies are working on a report, and some have
even gathered data, but have not yet published anything.
Virgin Media is the star of all this in the UK. The cable TV
company, owned by Liberty Global, has produced its report
according to the new UK rules months ahead of deadline. This
shows the mean gender pay gap is 9.0% and the median is 17.4%,
"consistent with the UK national average, at 18.1%". Last year
91.9% of men received a bonus, and 92.8% of women. Virgin Media
employs 13,000 people, of whom 39% are women, about the same as
Vodafone but way better than BT. As in many companies, the
lowest quartile in terms of pay has more women than the
top-paid quartile. At the bottom end, 44% are women and 56%
men; at the top only 25% are women.
There’s better news on the engineering side.
Virgin Media says only 9% of all UK engineers are women, and
only 4% of engineering apprentices. But 31% of its engineering
graduates are women, and 50% of engineering interns.
In its report, signed by CEO Tom Mockridge and chief people
officer Catherine Lynch, the company promises "gender parity by
2025". To get there, "we will implement a one-in-three female
shortlist for all senior recruitment".
Oh, and since you will inevitably ask, Euromoney, the
company that publishes Capacity, lists 14 senior
managers, of whom four, that’s 28%, are women
– including Ros Irving, the CEO of the division that
is responsible for Capacity, Capacity conferences and
International Telecoms Week. Within the Capacity/ITW
division, 65% of staff are women.
I’m grateful to the many people I spoke to for
this feature for providing additional information about gender
equality and other forms of diversity in telecoms.
Virgin Media’s report (PDF) is a model of what other UK
companies should be doing over the next few months.
AT&T published this diversity and inclusion annual report
(PDF) in 2016.
Cross-industry organisations and in-company
In the UK, there is Women in Telecoms and Technology. In the
US, there is Women in Cable Telecommunications, and
there is also Women in Cable Telecommunications
Ciena has a Women at Ciena group with more information here and a YouTube video here.
We’ll post links to other 'Women at X
company’ groups around the world when we know of
them. Please send details to me, Alan Burkitt-Gray, executive
editor, at email@example.com
Diversity in telecoms
AT Kearney produced this report for the GSMA about diversity
in telecoms worldwide.
McKinsey has two classic papers – quoted by almost
everyone – about why diversity matters and women in the workplace, plus a women in
the workplace study 2017.
Also important is this Columbia Business School report, with a
detailed analysis, published in 2016 but based on US 2015
census data, about women on boards and in the workplace.
The World Economic Forum produced this report about the gender gap
for 2016, covering 144 countries.
PwC has an index of women in the workplace.
The Global Network for Advanced Management has this report about women in the
Advance Systems, a provider of cloud-based workforce management
systems, has this report.
Boston Consulting Group has this report about how to get
CEB, now part of Gartner, has this page leading to information about
women in technology.
The BBC, the UK public service broadcaster, has been running a
series of articles, called 100 Women, about equality, discrimination
Digital Empowers, backed by Tata Consultancy Services, has this
useful set of information.
Pew Research has more information about the gender pay gap, from the 1980s
If you think this is confined to telecoms, of course it
isn't. See this article in the Washington
Post about the way male medical doctors introduce
female doctors and vice versa. Women introduce their male peers
with their title; men are more likely to use their female
peers' first names instead. The original academic paper is here.
Please send further suggestions for reports to link here.
Contact me, Alan Burkitt-Gray, executive editor, at
women in telco,