The gender imbalance issues facing telecom companies, and the tech industry as a whole, are no secret. The statistics are out there, and it's not pretty.
Last year, only 6% of Global Telecom's Business Power 100 were female, and only seven ladies made their 2013 40 under 40 list. The former recognizes the most powerful people in the telecom industry; the latter calls out those expected to lead it in the future, and the make-up of both speaks volumes about the current state and direction of the industry.
While details vary, this is an issue common to tech and telecom companies the world over in my experience. The good news is that the situation has improved, with initiatives aimed at addressing the problem gaining popularity. That said, the industry remains a proverbial "boys' club."
Why should anyone in telecom care about an inability to attract and retain female talent? Good question. Now more than ever businesses must be prepared to navigate complex problems. And complex problems are often better solved by a group of multi-gender, multi-discipline and multi-cultural professionals.
I've long felt that women hold the most value-add potential through their contribution of alternate viewpoints -- potential that's amplified considering how many companies target women as end users. Yet few effectively leverage female talent to identify what their contemporaries want and need. Research indicates the addition of women's perspectives can improve the odds of success for new products and services by 144%, making this disconnect even more baffling.
Considering the speed at which the telecom industry is evolving, as well as the impact of the female economy on the B2C and B2B segments, this information is acutely relevant. The stakes have never been higher, and we now have data suggesting the unique feminine worldview can contribute to better corporate performance over the long term. It doesn't take a statistical genius, executive or even a 20-plus-year industry veteran to connect the dots.
Altering the status quo
So we've established tangible benefits of women in the workplace. Now what? Though international bodies such as the G2O and APEC have committed to address the gender imbalance, the global business community has no true unified perspective on the issue.
In the EU, gender diversity overall, and in tech, differs by country. In Germany, we recently enacted a law establishing a quota for women on supervisory boards. Though I explicitly support the intent, more diverse "supervisory boards" won't affect real change.
In fact, such a quota may even be counterproductive, paying lip service while avoiding any real cultural and behavioral changes. Additionally, Supervisory Boards -- by definition -- have no hiring power or influence on product roadmaps, etc. They're too far removed from day-to-day activities to make an impact.
To me, breaking down cultural and behavioral barriers in any country happens with more exposure to a diverse workplace. Growing up with an older brother and his friends, I learned to enjoy gaining respect as the only girl. Professionally, I've often been the only woman and, early in my career, the youngest too. In these adverse conditions I realized the value of my unique perspective, allowing me to stand out from the crowd and break down stereotypes.
Marissa Mayer's story exemplifies the power of persistence and original insight. She advanced from her position as Google (Nasdaq: GOOG)'s 20th employee and first female engineer to CEO of Yahoo Inc. (Nasdaq: YHOO) in fewer than 15 years by proving herself to her peers everyday. So I feel strongly that positioning women to really interact and make a difference on a day-to-day basis should be priority one.
Getting to the root of the problem
You can't change the game if you don't have any players, and the severe shortage of female tech talent in telecom is conspicuous. In the short-term, immigration reform is needed to increase access to the existing global workforce, both male and female. This sort of policy change can address very real talent shortages now, as well as provide role models to encourage the next generation.
Ultimately, social and corporate interests must address why young women are less likely to enter into tech fields. Role models are great, but devoting greater resources to breaking down cultural barriers working against interest in STEM programs is crucial to establishing a long-term solution. It's widely accepted that "girls have no tech genes," and this perception creates reality. We need to make these fields of study more relevant and appealing to young girls and encourage them to move beyond stereotypes.
In my experience, the importance of leadership fostering an environment where many different talents can succeed holds true across industries and geopolitical boundaries. Women are different, which I consider an asset, and the complementary experiences and skills we bring "to the table" contribute to the overall value of any organization.
Given its current transitional state, I believe the telecom industry could certainly use alternate perspectives to question convention and push the boundaries of innovation. But don't take my word for it: Study after study has quantified the benefits of gender diversity. Other sectors of the tech industry are starting to realize this and take steps to "recruit and develop the world's most talented and diverse people."
It seems we're in the midst of a sea change. It's my hope that female executives around the world will continue pushing social boundaries, whether it's through STEM programs or regulation, and shatter the already cracked glass ceiling.
— Nicola Wolfram, Chief Operating Officer, tyntec