Recruitment in telecoms: A call for greater diversity

Capacity held its first ever Women in Telco panel session at Capacity Europe in Paris in November 2015. Gender diversity is gaining acknowledgement and recognition in the market, but how far off is the finish line? Laura Hedges investigates.

Bell Canada’s workforce is 35% female, with 26% in executive positions. At Millicom, 34% of the workforce is female with 22% taking up senior management roles. BT’s specific figures are  ambiguous, but it was listed as number six on The Times’ Top 50 Employers for Women 2015 list.

Past years have shown a notable increase in females in senior executive positions across the telecoms industry. Cynthia Gordon, recently appointed chief executive of Africa for Millicom, reveals that of the company’s African operations, 17% of its senior management board is female, a significant growth from 9% last year. 

Kuwait’s Zain Group appointed its first female CEO in November 2015 and the Women in Technology and Telecoms (WITT) group is gaining momentum with membership now sitting at approximately 500. Erin Callaghan, managing consultant for the technology sector across EMEA at telecoms recruitment firm FutureStep, says she has seen a huge drive from companies across the sector to increase female diversity. 

“Diversity is one of the key considerations that clients are looking at when they’re asking us to help them with recruitment,” she says. 

But despite this, the industry remains an unequal one and the fact that barriers still exist cannot be ignored.


Gender barriers

“Traditionally across the industry, senior management tended to come from a technical or engineering background,” says Callaghan. “Clearly, the technology and engineering space still attracts more men.” Gordon also sees a difference in vendor and operator recruitment, specifically in the African marketplace. African vendors often feature more engineers, while carriers have a broader range of roles in operations, sales, customer service and marketing.

“I believe the vendor market still has more work to do to encourage diversity, particularly in Africa,” she confirms.


Callaghan notes a recurring issue not just in hiring female staff, but in retaining them. Having analysed the problem at a major telecoms client, the results proved logical but somewhat difficult to tackle. “If you want to move to a senior vice president sales role for example, your role has to be very international, and the point at which people tend to move into these roles is seven or eight years into their career, which also happens to be the time when women are looking to start a family,” Callaghan explains.

“It means they are automatically ruled out because if they have a young family they cannot travel, so they do not get the opportunity to move upwards.”

This often results in women leaving the industry entirely, or taking on a less senior role. Gender barriers are also regional, and highly dependent on cultural values, points out Aidan Walker, director at Expand Executive Search, a recruitment firm specialising in executive appointments across the technology, digital and communications sectors.

The Middle East and Africa are, in general, less diverse than the US, but Walker says that Asia-Pacific has a heavily populated female workforce. 

“Europe is now trying to catch up with that. The US addressed it fairly early on and is now doing quite well,” he says.

Millicom’s Gordon says that “regional and cultural nuances are crucial” when it comes to judging gender diversity across the globe, but adds that this landscape is changing all the time. 

“There are more women in senior roles in nearly every region in the world than there were 10 years ago,” she says. “This is very encouraging.” 

Michelle Bourque, SVP of product, marketing and access strategy at BCE Nexxia (Bell Canada), has been in the industry for more than 20 years, and compliments its exciting environment. 

“The industry is always changing and the requirement for continued learning to meet an ever-evolving marketplace makes for a very rewarding career,” she says. 

Bourque notes her early start in the industry as an important part of her length of time in it. As a student she says she was exposed to a wide range of experiences across a number of disciplines in the sector such as network operations, network planning and engineering, as well as customer-facing and leadership roles. 

“We need to continue inspiring young women to pursue careers in the telecoms industry – it is fast-paced and dynamic with products and services that touch peoples’ lives every day,” she says.


Driving diversity

Walker agrees that starting early is key. “I think in the last two years we’ve seen a huge increase not just in diversity but in awareness, and organisations are really making an effort to increase their diversity from the top down,” he says. “What I believe now, is that it needs to be addressed from the bottom up.”

This means getting females interested in STEM subjects in primary and secondary schools as well as colleges. Doing so will, from a corporate standpoint, enable companies to move those individuals through the business much more quickly; potentially allowing for faster progression before a woman begins thinking about starting a family.  

“We have a social responsibility to drive this from a young age,” Walker adds.

Gender diversity is clearly gaining traction with the industry and Millicom’s Gordon has two key pieces of advice for women in the sector.“Firstly, work for a company where there is a diverse workforce and your manager believes and understands that it needs many different skills and perspectives to create high performing teams,” she says.  

“Secondly, do not create barriers for yourself, particularly in your mind about what you can and can’t do. I would urge all women to have confidence and push themselves to do and try all the things that they never thought themselves capable of.”

Herein lies a theme that Erin Callaghan has also come across. Callaghan has had discussions both internally and with her clients, around the idea that women tend to question themselves and their capabilities more than men. One company in particular has worked on re-phrasing its job specifications in a bid to address this. 

Women, Callaghan says, are more likely to disregard a role if they see a set of “must have” requirements, of which they fall short of a few. Men, on the other hand, will view the same list, see that they have perhaps 70% of the “must have” skills, and apply regardless. 

“This company had found that by saying “it would be preferable that you had”, rather than “you must have”, they had a much better response rate,” she says.

Bell also has a proactive approach to diversity and is working on a number of initiatives in the space. “To ensure we reach the widest and deepest talent pool, we advertise job opportunities to Canada’s diverse communities through partnerships with Equitek, Aboriginal Link and a number of diversity-focussed, on-campus student groups,” Bourque says. 

“We are proud that more than 30% of the current participants in Bell’s Graduate Program identify as visible minorities and approximately 35% are women.” 

Bell is a founding partner of CareerEdge which helps the company source internationally trained professionals, persons with disabilities and new graduates. The company also runs a Language Diversity Programme, a LGBT Network, the Hire a Veteran Program and Women at Bell. 

“While inclusive HR processes and programmes that drive the career progression of talented women in telecoms are obviously very valuable, women benefit immensely when they take charge of their careers and proactively seek out mentors and coaches from their own networks. “Coaching has been a hugely positive influence in my own career,” Bourque says.“Diversity in Bell’s workforce generates innovation and creativity which is the fuel that drives the development of best-in-class services for our customers.” 


Innovation incentive

Many share Bourque’s view that a telco is putting itself at a distinct disadvantage by not recruiting diversely. 

“Workplace diversity does actually impact the bottom line,” Walker says. “Gender balanced groups are smarter and more innovative, and this is research we have been involved in.”

Companies such as McKinsey and Co., Deloitte, the American Sociological Association and IBM have been doing research into gender diversity and its impact on businesses. 


For example, a recent report from McKinsey and Co. shows that gender diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform their peers, with ethnically diverse companies 35% likely to do the same. Deloitte Australia research proved that inclusive teams outperformed their peers by 80% in team-based assignments. Research from Forbes revealed similar findings. Having analysed 450 global companies, it discovered an enormous correlation between “inclusive” companies and their cash flow. The study showed that the companies it found to be truly diverse had a cash flow that was 2.3 times higher per employee over a three year period than the rest of the companies surveyed.

“Study after study shows how companies with better gender balance out-perform their competitors on share price and EBITDA,” says Gordon, who believes that gender diversity makes sense from both a moral and a business perspective.

“Committing to diversity is good business,” agrees Bourque. “It enables recruitment of the high-calibre employees that drive business success.”

Walker adds that it is not just gender-diversity but age-ism as well. “We are moving towards a period where there is going to be a lot of retirement, specifically within the wholesale market, so if we don’t start addressing technology recruitment from a more diverse perspective, we will end up with jobs gaps,” he says. 

So have far off is the finish line?

“New young people coming into the industry are much more diverse than the C-suite level,” says Gordon. “I believe that this is a strong indicator that in the future we will be a much more diverse industry than we are today.”

Callaghan agrees that change is happening, but, like Walker, says that the key is getting young adults interested in the technology sector early. And that’s going to take some time. 

“It is going to take a while because there are currently a very small percentage of women in technical roles,” she says. “The only way to fix that is to get them into the subject area from day one in order to grow that talent pool. That is something that starts when kids are doing their GCSEs, so really we’re talking about decades before we start to see an impact.”