Why are we still fighting for gender equality in telecoms? We must start with the fundamentals

By Sarah Grange, Head of Deployment (UK), VX Fiber

Barriers for women still exist at every turn. When it comes to career development, this is more prevalent in certain industries. And no more so than in telecoms. While it’s heartening to see the work being put into attracting female talent, such as through the Women In Fibre Committee (of which I am a proud member), and endless Women in Tech and Telecoms events and awards, there is clearly work that still needs to be done.

Women comprise almost half of the total labour force, despite this women working in engineering is just 10.3%. And according to research from Adeva ITV, women hold just 25% of all jobs in the tech industry.

The reason for this runs deep and it starts with historic gender stereotyping and bias. It’s not that long ago that everything was kept very separate for “girls” or for “boys” and from an early age. This has had a heavy influence on the choices being made later in life. In school, for example, the pattern has been that more girls choose art subjects, and more boys choose STEM subjects.

Therefore, it’s unsurprising that women, at present, are still underrepresented in tech and telecoms. Their early subject choices also naturally impact their preferences in higher education institutions, apprenticeship pathways and/ or early entry careers. The cycle of inequality becomes clear.

Because of this, change won’t happen overnight. It’s obvious the industry recognises this, which is why there have been several high-profile, and ongoing, campaigns from those in the world of technology, digital skills and even the government to encourage more females into STEM. That and the lack of digital skills that is having an impact on the tech and telecoms industry as a whole.

But until we start to reap the rewards of all this work, i.e., until it’s the norm that young girls dream of their future fibre career, we will still be in a position where we need to fill the gender gap. That also means getting more women into the industry now. Women who have already subverted the stereotype and can champion the cause for generations beyond.

While organisations aren’t responsible for the gender stereotypes in place. The onus is absolutely on the employer to help cultivate the ongoing work to remove preconceived ideas and challenge perceptions so that more women can see how they could belong in our industry.

The best intervention is prevention

In other words, if businesses want to address this problem, they must proactively engage with schools to provide resources, knowledge and training to teachers and young students. And the ability to engage with younger potential candidates is becoming easier. For example, the stereotypical career path (beginning with university) is no longer the only way. The recently introduced T-Levels, for example, enable young people

to get occupational experience alongside their theoretical - or in-school - studies. Not only does it open up the talent pool, but it’s also an opportunity to reach out to young people and change women’s perceptions about the career opportunities the sector can offer by actually showing it to them.

Recruitment and job postings need to be just as balanced as the business

Beyond that, another practical step is tackling recruitment and how vacancies are advertised. Every company needs to scan each job posting to check for and correct gender bias in order to encourage women to apply for the job. What we perceive as “masculine language”, indicates to potential woman candidates that the company is not inclusive. It links back to the initial points around what women have been shaped to believe they are good at. But changing the word “engineer” or “construction operative” to “customer connection advocate'' or “construction advocate”, for example, can attract exceptional women candidates.

As does removing the requirement for previous industry experience. Of course, this won’t work for every position, but it’s a proactive move that will enable you to reach a whole new demographic. We’ve had entry-level starters join and quickly show themselves as an asset to the team. Just a few months ago, one of our Customer Engagement team members moved into her second role as Build Engineer - joining - and proving herself just as much an asset amongst - our 20-strong all-male build team in Staffordshire!

Ask: what initiatives would truly help women thrive in your business?

Flexible working, closing the gender pay gap and giving more transparency about diversity within the business is also crucial. Ultimately women want to know that they will be welcome. And attempting to correct the imbalance that we’re starting from - and attempting to tackle for the future - will take plenty more proactive action. To list just some, it will need a continual review of Reward and Job Family to enable and ensure equal pay for equal roles; training staff in unconscious bias awareness; mandating equality hiring shortlists for all vacancies and showcasing female role models across the business.

Of course, when it comes to initiatives. Make sure these aren’t just paying lip service. For example, enhancing family-friendly work policies and benefits go a long way, but they shouldn’t be there because you know they should be. They should be built around - and there to help - women’s lives. As an example, one of our staff was supposed to finish up her maternity leave six weeks ago but preferred to stay beforehand. We’ve given her an extra three months after she gives birth instead. And similar, flexible actions should be taken on a case-by-case basis.

But it’s not just encouraging more women that these tactics can be used for. Many translate to encourage applicants from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds. Diversity creates a virtuous cycle: female talent attracts female talent. But the same can be said for diversity as a whole, as surely diverse talent attracts diverse talent. If we are to maximise our potential as a business, the team we instil must reflect the diversity of our society throughout the UK and that our networks are designed to serve.

We may not always be right. We’re human. But we have a voice and must distinguish what that means for everyone. As well as the initiatives above, we’re continuing to further embed and drive inclusivity across the organisation. Still, as a company and an industry, we have a long onward journey ahead of us but with this sustained progress, fibre’s future is bright. My advice for others on the same journey: let’s not overlook the fundamentals. We must get out of our biases and show women the great industry that we are part of, and that they can be too.

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