Ilissa Miller: many professional women see themselves as
slowing down in their late twenties and thirties to start a family,
a time when one’s career is just taking off
Why are there so few women at the top in telecoms companies? According to an article written by Meryl Bushell, published the January-February issue of Global Telecoms Business, women account for only 12% of the top teams of a sample of leading operators.
Based on her own 30-year career in telecoms, she observed that due to the nature of telecommunications being global, executives are required to “always be on”, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And as women, often we are the primary caretakers of the family unit, and therefore prefer and/or require more of a balanced work-life environment — which telecoms seldom offers.
There’s much merit to every word of that. The natural order of life places women as the family glue. They are the caretakers nurturing their spouses, children as well as their relatives and friends. So how do we make time to “have it all” – both the family and the career?
Secret 1: it’s all about support
At a Women in Telecom breakfast hosted at the Pacific Telecom Council annual conference held in Honolulu in January 2011, women revealed their secrets to success: an incredible support structure.
Men have traditionally succeeded in the workforce because of the supporting, nurturing wife or partner — but today women are more commonly being enabled by their nurturing husbands or partners as well.
Furthermore, when the partner too has a successful career, the notion of hiring help in the form of a nanny or housekeeper is more accepted and as such, frees up time for either parents or spouses to pursue their own interests.
But it’s not just about the support either; it’s about creating the right “flock” of people in which to associate.
Secret 2: networking as a business tool
In her article, Meryl Bushell identified networking as a trait that propels individuals forward. This is also the trait that she believes hinders women’s abilities to invest in their own careers. Based on her experience, she argued that “women tend to have fewer links in their networks, building closer ties to a smaller group of similar individuals. In the process, women cut themselves off from rich sources of information, sponsorship and advice and give themselves fewer opportunities to broker information.”
As a woman in telecoms, I don’t disagree with her perception that women don’t succeed in telecoms because they don’t network effectively, but I don’t agree 100% either.
Women, in their personal lives, tend to be more socially driven. The natural assumption is that women could also use these communication traits effectively in business — so what are the barriers that inhibit our ability to do so?
Perhaps it’s similar to the concept that you never talk money with your friends or family — there are just certain subjects and/or behaviours that we have been trained socially not to like.
So does this mean that you never sit down at a table of strangers and pass around your business card? Perhaps, but I think these socially accepted or unaccepted behaviours — especially for women — are becoming less so with time.
But perhaps what is worth mentioning here is that there is often a difference in “the career timeline” for women. Many professional women see themselves as slowing down in their late twenties and thirties to start a family, a time when one’s career is just taking off. So often these individuals are not networking for the long-term — but really just considering best short-term options available.
These are also the women who try to re-launch their career in their forties, after the kids are in school, and find themselves often behind on latest technologies, business practices and of course, networking opportunities.
So how do we account for this? The good news is that technology can help. Now more women can work from home, part-time or full-time, and social networking has become a thriving business tool. You can be a pioneer in your career while still changing diapers, if you so choose — and isn’t choice great.
Secret 3: you are who your friends are
Mom was right: try to always hang out with people who are doing good thing, making a difference — because chances are, so will you. So where does gender fit in here?
One of Meryl Bushell’s observations about the lack of women at the top is based on the old adage, “birds of a feather stick together”. And indeed there used to be a “good ol’ boy” mentality in the boardrooms of yesterday, and in many regions and countries it certainly still exists today.
However, more and more in business, the flock is turning — and folks are gathering together based on common business philosophies and values rather than a male versus female match-up.
As in my own business practices, I relish working with other women in the industry, and perhaps more importantly, working with women — and men — who have common values and perspectives. By sharing in these interests and working together for a greater good, our work is more collaborative, which usually equates to better end results and higher level of quality.
So while we are talking about collaborations, we ran a survey to see what other female execs in telecoms had to say.
Secret 4: make the most of it
We polled our female community about their own thoughts and experiences about simply being women in telecoms. Our goal was to gain insight into how they selected telecoms as their industry of choice, what they consider to be skills required to succeed in telecoms and if they perceived a glass ceiling for women in the industry.
Women entered telecoms for many reasons. It is the twelfth largest industry in the world, so it was surprising that not one respondent sought telecoms as a career choice. The majority either fell into the field “by accident”, was referred by a “friend or relative”, or landed an opportunity with a focus on a particular field such as sales, marketing and project management.
The overall trend: once respondents knew what they wanted to do for a job, they then found their way to telecoms and made the most of the opportunities they were given.
It does take a special person to appreciate telecoms. With technology speak everywhere, complex diagrams to decipher and multiple-layered solutions that require an immense amount of variables to deliver against, telecoms is not for the faint of heart.
Though it’s not rocket science, the ability to understand how complex solutions can be delivered easily is not a skill set that is taught in school or learned at home. It is a knowledge-based industry that requires a curious, intelligent mind that is willing to ask the right — and many times wrong — questions to gain a better understanding of the technologies, services and opportunities.
Ruth Bridger, the vice president of marketing of Xorcom, sums up her take on the industry: “Telecoms is a great field, since the desire to communicate is such a natural human emotion. The field is fascinating, since it is developing so rapidly, and allows us to reach practically every corner of the world.”
Furthermore, to be able to communicate and work with a variety of different people with different professional and interpersonal skills requires the ability to be organized, inquisitive and resourceful.
Managing a wide variety of people from disparate backgrounds personally, professionally and culturally can be exciting — and something that as women we are innately very good at corralling.
Secret 5: have grits
There are a number of common traits that women and men in telecoms require: drive, dedication, confidence, intellectual curiosity and industry knowledge — historical and present. It’s the latter that provides the perspective necessary to know what works, what doesn’t and how each layer of the stack fits together to fill the needs of the marketplace.
The good news is that as success is defined more about the intensity of the drive, dedication and intellect, it also becomes less about gender.
Secret 6: don’t let things like mere ceilings get in your way
The women in our survey didn’t feel that they were held back by a glass ceiling. Suzanne Bowen, vice president of Super Technologies, DIDX and Techistan, puts it most succinctly: the glass ceiling “is only there if you think it might be there”. It’s the “mind over matter” that allows someone to achieve.
The women in the poll also felt that as each gender learns more about the other and how individuals provide value on their own merits, the idea of whether you’re a woman or man is becoming secondary.
But no matter if you’re a women or a man, one needs to feel secure in one’s capabilities and confident in one’s ability to deliver in order to reap the benefits of recognition and success.
Tristan Barnum, product line director for business phone systems at Digium, observes: “Any bright, knowledgeable person who can effectively communicate their ideas, who is not afraid to make decisions and take risks, can succeed in this industry.”
The glass ceiling is a myth created by those who can’t see beyond it. If you believe that it’s there, it will be. Once the mind opens up to what the realities actually are, the glass ceiling disappears and the sky is the limit, and for men too. GTB
Ilissa Miller is managing partner of Jaymie Scotto and Associates, a New York marketing and public relations company. This article was written with Jaymie Scotto Cutaia, founder and CEO.