In March, Cher Wang (pictured), chairman and co-founder of HTC, replaced Peter Chou in his role as CEO of the manufacturer. The move saw Wang become one of the few women to take on a senior leadership role in the mobile industry. The lack of women making executive decisions is not a problem confined to the mobile business, but it remains an area where the industry is underperforming.
Women currently account for less than 40% of the workforce in telecoms companies, according to research by the GSMA. The gender discrepancies become more pronounced with seniority, with less than 20% of women holding senior positions. With the mobile industry currently undergoing a period of significant consolidation, the issue of gender has yet to be tackled.
Frankie Spagnolo, founder and director at The International MVNOx Association, believes that the gender gap starts long before women enter, or even consider entering, the industry.
She said: ‘The mobile industry is so maths, engineering and science focused that you have a far smaller percentage of girls entering college and taking up these degrees to be part of an MNO. Then at university there’s no real internship path into the industry; it’s quite a difficult industry to get into and it’s a boys’ club. Women are very drawn to each other at events, we love what we do and talk to each other about how important it is to educate other women on our roles, but that’s only one side of it, because it’s very difficult. We had to go through a lot of challenges to get to the senior level.’
Education appears to play a significant part in driving women to, or away from, the industry. The GSMA claims that the gender gap within subjects such as science, technology, engineering and maths has a part to play for the low female representation in mobile seniority. The company reported that the share of women enrolling in maths and engineering degrees is 38% and 25% respectively.
Spagnolo explained that for the women that do pursue these career paths, there remain social hurdles to be jumped, especially for those who decide to enter the industry from another career.
She says: ‘Women have to work five, sometimes 20 times harder than their male counterparts. If there isn’t already internal respect for women in seniority, it’s hard for your suppliers and vendors to take you seriously. Gender equality is extremely imbalanced in the mobile industry because of the tech aspects of it, and it moves so quickly that you really need to know the industry in order to sell it and negotiate deals, so it’s harder to switch from other careers.
‘You have to walk a fine line between being aggressive, solving problems and achieving objectives, and coming off as bossy, arrogant and emotional. This is how woman who are strong and powerful are often portrayed and that has not gone away.’
Finding a foothold
Internal respect is difficult to achieve if there are very few women in leadership positions, and the number of women seen on the executive board is small compared with retail shop floors. A good measure of this can be seen in Shop Idol where, over the past 11 years, almost half of the winners have been women who excelled in retail. With the number of women nominated for the award greater than the number of men, it is clear that women succeed at the shop floor level and the issue lies with why this success does not transcend to the boardroom. While women appear to take on roles within HR, marketing and retail, there are very few who take the helm as CEO, CTO, CFO or COO.
According to Spagnolo, working hard isn’t always enough to get a foot through the boardroom door, someone also has to hold open the door: ‘Getting into that boys’ club is essential, but there are usually no women in there to let you in in the first place.
‘If you are let in, you are valuable enough. Social implications are a factor, so you have to be very valuable and make it past a whole other set of social challenges to get into the boardroom, and if you don’t you struggle because you won’t have that relationship, and that’s important across the board with suppliers and vendors.’
In the UK market place, Dido Harding, CEO for TalkTalk, takes a different approach to the issue of gender diversity, explaining to The Telegraph that she has never been held back by her gender. She believes that the focus should be on encouraging diversity in the executive leadership teams, as well as mentoring and developing women into executive roles.
In the GSMA report, ‘Accelerating the digital economy: Gender diversity in the telecommunications industry’, director general Ann Bouverot also takes a different outlook on the gender discrepancies. She describes the gap not only as a challenge, but also as an opportunity to ‘make our industry more transparent and successful’. Both views are shared by Spagnolo, who believes that change needs to start from within the company, and it must start with the male-dominated board that commonly takes the lead.
While she insists that it is the duty of all senior women to mentor and encourage other women to enter more senior roles, dwindling numbers mean that this is not always possible. She suggests that men pave the way: ‘The mobile industry has innovative, powerful leaders who are men and they need to reach out and encourage women coming into the industry. There’s not enough women to mentor. If they don’t do it, who will? Women are still having to pave paths; women choose to leave careers and have families and when they come back they are years behind. It’s the reality.’
Balancing the books
This reality is one that the GSMA is looking to change though ‘returnships’ – these phase-back programmes are part of a number of ‘good practice’ initiatives that the organisation is working to implement within telecom companies. However, the nature of corporate culture is a difficult mindset to shift, and a more holistic strategy is required to promote change not just in the boardroom, but throughout the whole company. The GSMA has suggested that this strategy should involve leadership teams taking a vocal stance against the gender gap, coupled with a company vision that is reframed until a balance is reached.
According to a survey carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), 85% of CEOs who implemented a strategy to encourage diversity said it enhanced business performance. This thinking is one that transcends back into the mobile industry, with Spagnolo urging UK mobile operators to look at the value that women bring to a company, explaining that the networks need women ‘now more than ever’.
She says: ‘Mobile is becoming the backbone of every market, bringing women onto senior and board levels will ultimately make them more money, they will understand what to do better and they will do it efficiently.
‘They need to shake it up, right now everybody is actually scared of change, it’s been hard for the MNOs – they were huge profit-making machines, they had single plan billing, and they owned all the consumer information, there really is not a more powerful position to be in. Then Facebook and Apple came along and disrupted their world. That’s why women are important now more than ever. We need outside-the-box thinking because the consumer shift has happened, the internal shift in corporate mentality has to catch up and a lot of MNOs are really trying. Telefonica is leading the field and in response, Hutchinson is also leading the field.
Many companies are working to dispel the gender imbalance within the industry and a notable example lies with manufacturers. Samsung’s mobile division is overseen by Young Hee Lee (pictured) who has been involved in a number of strategic shifts in the manufacturer. Originally starting her career at L’Oréal, Lee not only moved from the beauty industry into the mobile market but she also stepped straight into her role on the Samsung board as executive VP.
Cher Wang is both the co-founder and CEO of HTC Corporation, despite being the only woman on the board of directors. She was ranked by Forbes last year as one of the most powerful women in the world and has taken the helm on numerous occasions to make tough executive decisions. Both women have been vocal about their role in the industry, and Spagnolo feels that more female voices are needed in the UK mobile market.
She says: ‘Women are so important for UK MNOs because they are consolidating. MNOs have to take a deep breath and look at the value points that women bring to the board; lower turnover rates, higher margins and better customer service. MNOs should be stockpiling as much faith as they can in their key women. A consolidation is hard and you want a well-rounded set of minds at the take-over table so that you don’t just have one point of view.’
Gender diversity in the mobile industry remains a much talked-about issue, but for it to be more than a discussion topic there need to be more people involved in the conversation. From retail staff all the way up to CEO, Spagnolo believes that everyone has a part to play in making a difference.
She says: ‘We need to make change come to the table and talk. To learn this industry, to really learn it and to be able to negotiate at senior level you have to understand the tech, how it makes money and how it benefits the consumer. In a merging mobile market those skills are not only needed, they are vital.’