Many countries want to ensure that future generations of telecoms are used to reduce digital divides, whether that’s between different races, genders, beliefs and more. In the USA the term is ‘digital equity’ but there are similar aspirations elsewhere.
This is all very well, but diversity within the telecoms sector has long been acknowledged as a major challenge. Addressing gender diversity effectively has been an aim, because it opens up a broader talent pool and allows for more varied perspectives in designing customer propositions and processes; at the same time it has proven a tough nut to crack.
Joana Filipe, Head of People and Culture at Vorboss, has been going right back to basics to address the issue, as she told 6GWorld recently speaking about their Female First Initiative. It is part of a drive to recruit in a way that will allow for more effective competition against, for example, the tech majors of Silicon Valley.
“Money isn’t all that matters. For Gen Z diversity is the watchword,” Filipe explained.
“Tapping into their core values means signing up top talent – candidates who will define the future of work. CEO Tim Creswick is personally involved and regularly consults with diversity, equity and inclusion experts to help us understand what we can do better.”
This isn’t simply a feelgood initiative, either. “By creating the best culture for both men and women in the telecoms and tech industry, and striving towards that essential gender balance, we’ll be able to get the best people – and the best out of everyone,” said Filipe.
Sha-Sha Feely is an example of exactly this. Having started as an apprentice fibre installer, she is now Operations Lead.
“It’s difficult to find women with industry experience,” Filipe commented, “so at Vorboss we invested in in-house training. We give the right skills, tools, and materials to those who don’t have a telecoms background.”
Fibre installation probably isn’t the first thing one thinks of when talking about women in tech, so it’s certainly a striking example of how companies can change not just mindsets but very practical elements on the ground to make a suitable environment.
Filipe noted that, “Like many telecoms installers, our uniform designs were based on male physiques. Once we realised they didn’t fit our female staff – boots, gloves, and overalls were all too big – we acted immediately. We invited our female technicians to join meetings with suppliers and to ensure we now offer bespoke uniform options. The same applies for our tools out in the field.”
Feely noted the positive impact that challenging the standard protective equipment and tooling had had on her work.
“This should be the norm – no one should be penalised for their anatomy,” she said.
While the physicality of the work itself is not a hindrance, there are circumstances which have to be taken into account in order to get the best out of a diverse workforce and therefore retain it.
“We had feedback from an employee saying she doesn’t feel comfortable working when on her period because of a lack of facilities. Because so few women had worked in the field in that role it was something we had to learn how to approach.”
The answer for Vorboss? In fact, there is no answer that covers all the different contingencies. Filipe says these include “Bringing period days into our types of leave. If they don’t feel comfortable working they can take the day off. We also have welfare vans that go around every day to each team with all the facilities our female couriers and SQL technicians could need. Finally, we partnered with one of the most common coffee shops to allow our employees to use their facilities.”
It’s not only perceptions within the industry that can be an issue. “Members of the public are not always used to seeing women in uniforms doing engineering work. Our feedback forms sometimes contain accounts of staring and uncomfortable questions,” Filipe noted.
“We know it’s important to address this head-on to ensure our installers feel prepared to work in the field and would encourage others to do so. Our training includes specific case studies and ways of coping.”
As a result their fibre installation team is 36% female, which they claim is the highest in the industry. As a claim that seems a priori very believable.
It’s a commonplace today that telco players are in a highly competitive environment for critical skills. Usually the context is areas such as cybersecurity and AI, but there are many industries where engineering skills are aging out of the workforce. As a result, training and retraining can become not only a way to attract but also retain skills. As Feely noted,
“I was concerned about my lack of knowledge in telecoms, I assumed it would have a negative impact on my position. But when I joined, Vorboss taught me everything I needed to know to get started. I also learned that I wasn’t alone in my limited experience.”
There have been many studies conducted on why women drop out of learning engineering and related skills over time, with the implication that once that happens that’s the end of the story. It’s striking, then, that in this instance the assumption is little or zero knowledge for the entry-level work. It’s a bigger up-front investment but may pay off in the longer term.
“Now more than ever companies need to foster a culture of progress within the organisation,” Filipe commented. “It will be the difference between a male-only workforce and a forward-looking one with a greater talent pool to promote from.”
Alex Lawrence is Managing Editor at 6GWorld. His mission is to bring together stakeholders from across industries, countries and disciplines to make sure that, as technology evolves in the coming decade, it’s meeting the changing demands of society, government and business.
He has been involved as a professional nosy person in the telecoms sphere since 2004, with short detours through industrial O&M and marketing.
If you’d like to talk to Alex about your ideas or projects he’d love to hear from you. @animalawrence or firstname.lastname@example.org.