Courage and determination needed if women are to succeed in the industry

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Stephanie Liston of Ofcom and the organisation Women in Telecoms and Technology asks why there aren't more women making a contribution at a senior level in telecoms companies

Stephanie Liston: why do so many talented females feel forced out to go it alone?

The latest stark statistics from our industry make frightening reading: fewer women than ever are entering the sector, we are still subjected to unequal pay and board representation of women is actually declining.
So, we need to ask, why are we where we are? What is going wrong? And where do we go from here?
Despite the UK's Higgs Report in 2003 on non-executive directors and growing evidence indicating that companies with gender-balanced boards produce better financial results, we are still not seeing any increase in women joining the board, or senior management teams, of larger telecoms and IT companies.
Why is this? Is it down to apathetic head hunters circulating only the usual suspects? Is it because women don't do enough to raise their profiles and make their names known?
A lack of confidence, perhaps? Is it the members of the board preferring to recruit in their own image? Or simply the result of a general shortage of women in the industry.
I suspect it is a complex mixture of all these factors. As Women in Telecoms and Technology ( enters its eighth year, it is time to reflect and think carefully about the choices being made by women and the reasons behind them.
Then we must craft — and, crucially, drive — our futures within the sector. It's a time to be positive — instead of bemoaning our apparent lack of progress; we should be looking to celebrate our talents and what we have achieved.
And we should focus on making full use of our greatest strengths and assets: each other.

Working together

The only sure pathway to success totally depends on us working together as women, supporting and helping one another and creating passionate female role models who can inspire, motivate and mentor younger professionals.
I am delighted to have recently met six such visionary females. Having been asked to judge a category of the 2008 BlackBerry Women in Technology Awards, I approached the task in hand with a mixture of pride and a sense of discouragement about our apparent lack of progress.
One morning spent meeting the shortlisted candidates completely changed my perspective. I met six fantastic, highly talented women who have started their own businesses, all cleverly conceived and well executed.
Full marks to BlackBerry for celebrating these women with their awards. And, with the UK government's announcement of £12.5 million being made available to boost female entrepreneurs, the spotlight has suddenly turned onto small and medium sized businesses.
But this leads us to the difficult question of why women in general have made relatively little progress in traditional businesses and why so many talented females feel forced out to go it alone and succeed on terms they find acceptable?
Women want to be in control of their working lives. They don't just desire flexibility — it's an essential condition of employment for many females juggling complex career and family commitments. They want/need success on their own terms along with limitless opportunities.

Career structure

But, fewer and fewer women are finding what they seek in the traditional big business culture and environment. Consequently, we are seeing an ever increasing shift as women choose to leave the mainstream career structure to create a new path.

Women's networking groups
telecoms and IT

This is a loss for big business. And bad news for women too. It means that there is an alarming shortage of high-flying female role models in our sector. And role models are critical to the development of young female talent.
I believe it is fundamental that the gap at the top be filled. To accomplish this requires more than a plaster or one or two token women. The sector requires a rethink of what it is trying to achieve.
The broadcasting sector has significant gender diversity. With convergence a reality, I would think there is an excellent pool of potential candidates.
It is also fundamental — and this, sadly, does not go without saying — that women must help each other, be kind and supportive to one another, and be open to changing the way we work and the way businesses in the sector recruit and operate.
Women's networking groups allow younger women to meet more senior women in other organisations to share their concerns. Informal cross-industry support is crucial as we build confidence and move forward. The bar need not be lowered.
The spotlight needs to be brighter to find those talented women who are reticent about putting themselves forward and are not fortunate enough to have a mentor in the business who will promote them.
If we do not make progress in this way I think we must look to the Norwegian model and consider quotas for company boards. This strategy will, I suspect, eliminate the current level of apathy about — or lip service paid to — the desire for diversity.

Build confidence

We, as women, each have a responsibility to build confidence — both in ourselves and our fellow females. It's time to seize the moment — to be brave and bold and drive the vision.
As American artist Anne Brigman, who worked alongside Georgia O'Keefe, astutely observed, "Fear is the great chain which bonds women and prevents their development, and fear is the one apparently big thing which has no foundation in life. Cast fear out of the lives of women and they can and will take their place in the scheme of mankind and in the plan of the universe as the absolute equal to men."
I applaud the many talented women who are striking out on their own to build new businesses. I applaud those women who are working desperately hard to succeed in their careers in the traditional workplace.
We are all, regardless of gender, juggling the demands of business and domestic life. It is time our traditional business structures changed to accommodate a diverse and sensible means of creating corporate value while not selling our souls.
If senior business figures do not have the courage and determination to effect this change in the near term, as our sector is changing dramatically, different and more drastic measures must be actively considered by government. GTB

Stephanie Liston, a lawyer, is a director of Women in Telecoms and Technology and until the end of March 2008 is a non-executive director of Ofcom. Felicity Hawkins helped edit the article