Subtle now, but discrimination is still there, say leading women in telecoms

Subtle now, but discrimination is still there, say leading women in telecoms

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 & Solutions. 

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 wouldn’t know.” 

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 collaboration.” 

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 meeting.”

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 malice.”

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.”

Virgin Media is aiming for a 50/50 gender split at all levels by 2025. “We want to get more women in senior roles,” she says. Already half of the company’s new apprentices are women. “That’s particularly encouraging.” 

Says Gilder at Ciena: “My executive team is 50% women, 50% men.” 

But, first, why is diversity important? “It never makes sense that this is a topic of conversation,” says Clark at Syniverse. “We’re dealing with a diverse population and you need diversity as part of decision making. A skewed group making decisions will have a skewed view.”

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 upbringing.”

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 says. 

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 us.” 

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 pool.” 

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 candidate lists.”

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 styles.”

Self-promoting men 

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 Orange.” 

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. 

Mentoring programmes 

“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 Lynch-Habib. 

“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 Media. 

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 concludes. 

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 experiences. 

Diversity and equality in numbers: a long way to go

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 resources.)

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 disabilities. 

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 information.]

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 bonus data.

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 female.” 

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. 


Additional data and resources

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 groups

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 UK

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   

Diversity in telecoms

AT Kearney produced this report for the GSMA about diversity in telecoms worldwide. 

General resources

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 workplace.

Advance Systems, a provider of cloud-based workforce management systems, has this report.

Boston Consulting Group has this report about how to get diversity.

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 and sexism.  

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 until 2015. 

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   

Gift this article