Women in business: a 30-year rise to the top

‘They kept telling us we were not qualified to make the big decisions. We did not understand strategy, we lacked vision and guts. It is time for women to stop buying into this myth that we are not ready for top positions.’ 

According to Sally Helgesen, who has been working with women in leadership for 30 years, this was one of the most powerful statements made by a speaker in the 2008 Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society, exemplifying the attitude that permeated the event.

Since then, whilst more and more women have risen to leadership positions, female representation remains rather uneven: women have a strong presence in support functions, whereas men hold on to leading roles in operations, research & development and similar. In the first half of 2020, 40% of HR director positions were filled by women compared to Chief Marketing Officers (17%) and Chief Information Officers (16%).

What is  interesting to note, is that the gap in male/female representation does not start from the hiring process, but rather can be attributed to what Mercer defined as a ‘leaky pipeline for women leadership’: in the however many steps that separate support staff from executive level, female presence is cut in half. 

Since the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society which Sally attended in 2008, much has changed in the business world for women; however attention to leadership diversity may end up being a collateral victim of the uncertainty that global economies are facing at the moment. Over the past decade, multiple surveys proposed within the business world as well as to the general public have awarded women with higher perceived trustworthiness than men, however confirmed that men are still considered more capable of leading in times of crisis.

This attitude is deeply rooted in decades of shared business practices: men have always been in charge of world economy, so the business world sees their way of leading as the only viable option to sail through turbulent times. As a result, since women started consistently entering the business world in the 1980’s-90’s, they have been encouraged to suppress all those traditionally female behaviors and personality traits to adopt attitudes typically attributed to men, as those where the criteria they would have been evaluated on, and hence the only way they could be accepted and successful.

Even literature addressing career women, such as ‘The Managerial Woman’, ‘Games Mother Never Taught You’ and the self-explicative ‘How To Talk Make’, endorsed this kind of approach, advising women to ‘leave their values at home’, as those same skills and ways of communicating that were useful to them in managing a family had no place in competitive workplaces. The same had to be considered true with regards to how a female presented themselves through their behaviors, reactions and appearance when interacting with male colleagues: sports metaphors and sober skirt-suits received a green-light, whereas getting offended at typical male ‘locker room talk’ was a strong no-go.

Things started to change with the mid-2000’s crisis, when it became clear that the aggressive, reckless risk-taking leadership style of the so-far unbeatable Wall Street leaders was the cause of the dramatic situations that business was facing. In addition to this, a few ‘enlightened’ writers pointed out how a number of women had spotted misconduct in their industries and tried to alert their supervisors, but were dismissed without particular care. 

All of this came together in the realization that changing economic scenarios required a corresponding change in leadership skills, which would be facilitated by some of behaviors that women would typically show in offices. Notably among others, the ability of building strong relationships across levels and a preference for an inclusive approach to communication and leadership.

Having their unique approach recognized and validated was a huge step for women to start filling more senior positions, however women still felt that they needed to prove themselves, much more than men did. For them, demonstrating their competence remained the pre-requisite for stepping into a leadership role, much more than for their male colleagues, a difference that became so evident to be given the name of ‘confidence gap’.

Undoubtedly, higher confidence in and recognition of female leaders’ skills worked wonders in increasing the presence of women in senior positions, but there was one more thing standing in the way of women really becoming relevant in their companies: what is commonly known as ‘queen bee’ mentality. The concept ‘women supporting women’ was still regarded with some suspicion, both due to the scarcity of accessible leadership positions that boosted competition, and because showing a supportive, nurturing side almost took away from women professionalism.

In early 2000’s, solidarity among women really started to gain momentum, and so did organizations’ attention to creating more structured programs focusing on women leadership.  Women could finally live up to their potential. Another element that advanced this process came when women started looking at men as allies, rather than enemies, proving that the old cliché that ‘unity is strength’ actually has some truth to it. Examples can be found in global movements that started inside the business world, but quickly expanded way beyond that, such as #MeToo and #HeForShe. The first, focused on harassment on the workplace, gained momentum when women started publicly speaking up, and got final seal of validation when men started standing by their female colleagues, vouching for measures to be taken to solve this issue. #HeForShe, instead, is intrinsically based on the need for men to support women in order to reach gender equality, in and out of the office, demonstrating once more the importance of man alliance.

At the dawn of 2020, women in business had never been in a better position: the world economic scene counted multiple extremely influential female figures (Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardem, Mette Frederiksen and Tsai Ing-Wen to name a few), and so did the Telco industry (Funke Opeke, founder of Main Street Technologies, and Alexandra Rasch, founder and CEO of Caban Systems, awarded with Woman of the Year and Rising Star prizes in Global Women in Telco & Tech Awards 2020 are amazing examples of this trend). The spread of this year’s pandemic, however, adds some uncertainty to what could have been a glowing moment: will the business world sail through this crisis maintaining the same trust in women, or will it fall back in the all pattern of hanging on to men to lead through difficult times?

This truly represents a turning point for women position, and it will be extremely interesting to see it unfolding in the coming months. 

Sources:
Catalyst, Quick Take: Women in Management (August 11, 2020)
Strategy Business, The evolution of women’s leadership (September 14, 2020)

A new board, a deep commitment to our mission and some challenging questions from the audience: here’s a recap of what happened in WICT September Townhall

Who else has started to expect the worst when they hear the word ‘news’ this year? I definitely have. However, news can still be great news and this is one of those cases – even in these unprecedented times, the leadership team at WICT Europe are finding new ways of connecting with our members.

On September 16th, we held a virtual Townhall event to introduce the new Board chaired by Soraya Loerts who shared her vision and strategy for WICT Europe; it was also an opportunity for us to hear from members on their views and expectations of the Chapter for the coming months. This was our biggest event to date: over 100 people signed up, representing ~15 technology companies across Europe.

We decided to give you a quick recap of the great content covered with the help of WICT Europe’s Chief of Staff, Nadia, who acted as moderator of the event:

What was the purpose of having this Townhall?

Having this Townhall now was so appropriate, for two main reasons. As you know, we have just recently appointed a new board, and it was really important that our members could see us, speak with us, and share their thoughts on the direction of the Chapter for the coming year. We really want all members to play an active role in WICT, so we think creating that personal connection was a meaningful step in that direction.

In addition, we wanted to acknowledge that whilst events have been moving to digital formats, a trend likely to continue for the foreseeable future, we are still 100% committed to realizing our goals as a Chapter. If anything, pivoting towards digital events offers the exciting opportunity of really leveraging our central Chapter to expand to new geographies across Europe.

What main topics were addressed during the event?

We wanted to communicate the type of events we will be focusing on this year. There will be a greater emphasis on skill-based leadership training, paired with the launch of our mentoring program. This will be available to all levels through an application process.

Last year we were almost like a start-up, launching the Chapter and building a membership base. We have now moved into the phase where we want to focus on driving value for our members and providing them with development opportunities, as ultimately we believe this will attract wider diversity.

Some C-level guests also joined the event, what was their input to the conversation?

We were really lucky to have the support of so many people at the event! Among others, we were joined by Enrique Rodriguez, the Chief Technology Officer of Liberty Global and Thomas Mulder, the Chief People Officer of VodafoneZiggo, and this was a huge endorsement for WICT Europe. We are really serious about wanting to make a difference for our members through learning and development opportunities, but we also need to play an active role in guiding companies on how we can create measurable and attainable goals.

We were challenged by Enrique and some other members on how we will report our success. That was extremely valid feedback for us, and we are already hatching a plan as to how we will measure and communicate this in a more data driven way over the next year.

What kind of questions were raised by the audience?

It was great to see how eager attendees were to participate in the conversation, and the questions were many and diverse. One recurring theme was the complexity of diversity, and the need to acknowledge its intersectional nature. We have so far focused mostly on gender, but our members pointed out there are so many aspects that can and need to be added to that: the challenges faced, for example, by a single mother will be only partly the same as those faced by a woman of color working in a white man dominated corporation. Some of our members have many of these overlapping social identities, and we need to acknowledge and address the diversity that they add to our cause. How can we look at other verticals beyond just gender, and bring that into the conversation? Perhaps focusing on diversity as a broader topic we can bring light to other movement and strive for equality together. As a first step in this direction, we are hosting an event on LGBTQI+ plus inclusion in the workplace this October; we are also planning an event inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, which has deeply characterized this last year, and from which we can for sure learn.

If you could pick one takeaway that you would like attendees to remember from this Townhall, what would it be?

The central word for us is ‘together’. It is important for our members to know that we are driven to create a programming calendar that is relevant to them but ultimately if we want to achieve our mission of creating a level playing field for both men and women in technology, we need to do it together. Funnily enough while we were talking about this, we realized that the word ‘together’ can be split in to-get-her, which is so representative of our mission: we want to get her to her next steps, to get her to a leading role, to get a level playing field for her… So, yes: together is the word.

Well, what is left to say, if not that we were so excited to see the engagement from members and we cannot wait to see what next year has in store for WICT Europe!

The European workforce – from an American Woman’s POV

Throughout my 30+ year career as a woman in the US Cable Industry, work-life balance remains one of the most important, yet elusive, quests facing women in our field. It’s true we’ve come a long way, but working in Europe has me asking for better and smarter ways for women to achieve even healthier balance between work and their families.    

In my early career, there were workshops, trainings and seminars to master balancing the demands of home and work. We created primary, secondary and tertiary grids of support enabling us to be valued employees, and good mothers, sisters or daughters. And we mapped out exacting plans to manage the overtime demands that came with executive level engagement, all the while carefully stockpiling the scanty vacation allowance for that hoped-for maternity leave some day.

“Domestic Support Contingency Planning” – a fancy title for thinking through and listing those you could count on for help when domestic life spilled over the lines.

This is something that has improved over time, thanks to organizations like WICT. But first, let me tell you how I first starting getting involved with WICT and how it has changed my life for the better.  I was privileged to encounter WICT early in my career. I attended the Betsy Magness Workshop in 1990 and continued through to the Leadership Institute Class 4. I proudly served six years on the WICT Foundation board as Secretary, Vice Chair and Chair.  As part of that initiative, I (along with many other women,) launched an industry-shaking research and advocacy program, PAR – “Pay, Advancement Opportunities, and Resources for Work-Life Balance.”

PAR received a tentative reception, because ranking the best companies for female staff in the telecom industry also meant revealing where other employers were lacking. So the launch and integration took several years to be fully deployed and embraced, but it continues today as the industry standard by which companies can be measured to help improve their diversity and inclusion. I am very proud of the impact PAR has had on the industry for D&I and excited about the future as WICT continues its advocacy work.

Now flash forward to 2004-2015, my life had many personal changes. Some blessings, whereby I adopted two beautiful children from China and Vietnam. But also it was one of the most difficult times in my life, where I chose to stay out of the industry and be at home to take care of my ailing mother who was in hospice with a terminal illness. Sadly, my mom passed away in 2013 and I’m very fortunate my kids and I had the ability to have been by her side until the end.

About a year afterwards, another blessing came along. I had the fantastic opportunity to work for Liberty Global in Amsterdam. My children and I had been relatively home-bound for the three years of my mother’s terminal illness, and we jumped at the opportunity to participate in a new adventure and sold/gave away almost everything we owned to move to Europe.

That’s when I started learning all over again. In Europe, work-life balance issues weren’t just about women, nor were they necessarily issues at all. The “R” in PAR – “Resources for work life balance” had a whole new baseline in Europe.

What I had come to accept in the US as “the way it is” didn’t have to be like that at all.

Here is what I’ve learned from my time in Amsterdam:

  • The basics of “R” in PAR (work/life integration) are just phenomenal in Amsterdam. Pregnant women begin maternity leave on their 8th month of pregnancy.
  • In Amsterdam, the company pays the wages for the 4 weeks before birth and the 12 weeks after birth (the company receives compensation from the government for that benefit). In addition, paternity leave is paid for 5 days after birth. 
  • There is a “parent day” concept in Amsterdam that allows parents who have children less than 8 years old to take a day off work a week, and still retain full-time status (although their pay is reduced 20%).

While I know all these benefits in Amsterdam cannot be offered in the US, it certainly gives perspective and showcases some best practices that help achieve stronger gender diversity. WICT’s PAR research and benchmarking metrics show that finding ways to improve gender diversity within companies greatly improves work culture, boosts innovation and positively contributes to the overall success of the organization. But with everything, there is still work to be done.

The 4+ years I have spent in Amsterdam went by quickly for my family and me. I think that has to do with adapting to a culture that embodies work/life balance. This experience has given me wisdom and appreciation beyond compare. I also was fortunate to be part of the group that helped launch WICT Europe in Amsterdam. That has been one of the most satisfactory contributions in my career – to work alongside women and men here to create another international chapter for WICT. To know that they will create benchmarks to set goals and see an even better future for our daughters and sons and the parents of the future.

Women and men. Moms and Dads. Humans. I have learned that it is possible.

So just when I know what it means to pay my Aansprakelijkheidsverzekering, and have stopped gawking in astonishment at the things people do while biking (breastfeeding tops the list,) our time in Amsterdam is coming to a close. Starting in July, my family and I will be looking for our next adventure back in the US. My fabulous employment here in The Netherlands will be ending, as the company has successfully divested most of its holdings to another company. My kids will be starting high school and middle school next year, and the timing is right for a new “planting” back home to my beloved USA.

I am active in the job search mode, and thankful for the contacts and networks that WICT and this community has afforded this single mom. I look forward to continuous learning and engagement with the WICT community and finding the next chapter of my journey. After all, there is still work to be done with gender diversity – and I’m just getting started.

IT’S TIME FOR THE TECH INDUSTRY TO EMBRACE DIVERSITY AND BALANCE

Walking through the tech-filled halls for my first ever Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, I’m amazed. Initially, by the banks of neon, flanks of flashing screens, video and audio speakers proclaiming the wondrous possibilities of AI and 5G.

Then, by the hundreds of panels featuring the industry’s best and brightest– interviews and keynotes with CEOs, tech leaders and silicon start-ups.

And ultimately, unavoidably, I’m amazed by the sheer volume of men in attendance…. tens of thousands of men. And only a smattering of women.

The glaring diversity gap here does have one advantage – the lack of queues in the women’s toilets. Something I find laughably odd as I breeze past rows of men waiting in line at the gents towards a calm stand of empty washstands and stalls.

But elsewhere, this obvious gender imbalance in both attendees and speakers seems less fortuitous, and leads me to wonder – how is it that we’re able to create such brilliantly complex products and yet fail to nail the simplicity of having a workforce that reflects our society?

As the week unfolds the pace of innovation and the intelligence on display is striking. However, the lack of gender diversity that I noticed on day one starts to creep into my thoughts and influence my experience of what’s in front of me.

Consider this: Why are all the virtual assistants – such as Alexa and Google and even the one in my brand new lease car – women? And why have we programmed them to respond only to orders with no please or thank you required?

And, why are all the super-computers and AI machines named ‘Watson’ or ‘Einstein’?

I took this thinking to the Women4Tech panel “diversity in the age of intelligent connectivity”, where I was joined by the CIO of Nokia and the CTO of Telecom Italia – both strong female leaders. We were thrilled to see an audience of 500 people – men and women – eager to drive diversity together.

Two main topics were discussed; The need for diversity in opinions and viewpoints, and how to create a more flexible workplace to drive more women into our industry.

After many conversations, insights and personal experiences shared, three main themes came to light:

Firstly, as women, we need to dare. Dare to step up, be confident and ask for things that will further our career and help us reach our goals. I’m not a fan of the phrase ‘act more like men’, but it works in this regard as they seem to have less of a problem making their value and contribution known. Women tend to wait for their contribution to be recognised by others. We must dare to make our opinions known, dare to get our names out there and dare to ask for a seat at the table.

Secondly – and very topically in the week of International Women’s Day – workplaces need to create environments that encourage women to join and inspire diversity. It’s a proven fact that companies perform better when they reflect the customers and communities that they serve. Diversity, both ethically and economically, is good for business.

Finally, the technology industry needs to change its reputation and welcome more women into a sector that has traditionally been male dominated. A recent WIRED study found that only 12% of leading machine learning researchers were women. 12%?! That isn’t good enough. With fast moving technologies, diversity of skills and specialization adds to the complexity. It’s imperative that tech leaders build teams with diverse views, experiences, and backgrounds to create the innovation that is needed to stay relevant in the age of intelligent connectivity.

Until now driving diversity was, for me, a no-brainer. But after this week, I feel a keener sense of urgency. It’s key that ethics and human connectivity are at the centre of the technological process we’re celebrating at MWC. We need to act now so we can ensure diverse human viewpoints are baked into our technology, and maybe someday soon we’ll see a super computer called Susan.

WICT EUROPE PRESIDENT, EMMA LYON, REFLECTS ON THE LAUNCH, THE POWER OF WOMEN AND HOW TO GET INVOLVED.


For forty years WICT has had a clear mission: to develop and empower women in the industry to maximize their potential. It is a real honor for me to take on the role of President our new European chapter, to continue championing this mission and grow our footprint to help colleagues in Europe achieve this aim.

Last week, we officially launched WICT Europe at the historic De Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam. Joined by a truly international audience, including guests from the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Switzerland, UK and the US, we heard from some amazing industry leaders and had the opportunity to share personal experiences and ideas, as well as networking.

Recent research shows women-led teams receive just 7% of all European technology start up investment and only 5% of leadership positions in the UK technology sector are held by women. We know that diversity is more than just gender, but at our launch event our focus was on The Power of Women and what we can all collectively do to make improvements in our industry.

It was an honor to have Miranda Curtis, Board Director of Liberty Global and Liberty Latin America as our keynote speaker. From how to make yourself heard in the boardroom to the benefits of moving beyond operations towards roles in strategy and M&A, her advice and wisdom was an inspiration to everyone in the room.

Amy Blair, SVP and Chief People Officer at Liberty Gloabl, chaired a lively panel discussion focusing on empowering women. Joined by Enrique Rodriguez, EVP & Chief Technology Officer at Liberty Global, Jeroen Hoencamp, CEO of VodafoneZiggo, Marva Johnson, VP of Charter Communications and Melissa Raczak, Partner at Deloitte – the panel explored the challenges and opportunities they face in the market, their vision on diversity and how they are essential to strong leadership and strong business results in our industry.

Celebrating and recognizing great female leaders in our industry is at the heart of what we do at WICT, and we were delighted to be joined by our special guest Izabella Wileyfrom A&E Poland, who was awarded the WICT Woman to Watch for 2019.

The launch event is just the start of our journey. Today WICT has over 10,500 members – 10% of which are men – and we want to encourage as many colleagues and peers as possible to join. Membership provides unparalleled networking opportunities, access to professional development programs, webinars and much more besides. If you’d like to join, you can become a WICT Europe member here

EMMA LYON, VICE PRESIDENT – PEOPLE AT LIBERTY GLOBAL, AND PRESIDENT OF WICT EUROPE