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Mon 15 Feb 2010 04:00 AM

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Mind the gap

With the ICT sector often perceived as being male dominated, CommsMEA takes a look at the gender split among telcos in the region and asks what needs to be done to redress the balance.

Mind the gap
Nayla Khawam says there is a lack of women in technical posts.
Mind the gap
GUEST: It is rare for HR and communications directors to reach CEO level.

With the ICT sector often perceived as being male dominated, CommsMEA takes a look at the gender split among telcos in the region and asks what needs to be done to redress the balance.

Two months ago Nayla Khawam, the CEO of Orange Jordan, featured on the cover of CommsMEA. It was notable not only because it marked Khawam's first six months in charge of the Jordan-based operator, but also because it was the first time a woman had been on the cover of CommsMEA for over two years, reflecting the lack of women in the top role in the industry in the Middle East and Africa.

The CEO's chair is almost always occupied by a man, and that dominance sweeps across the C-suite of senior positions in telcos.

"We have a lack of women in the technical side, but not in telecommunications as a whole; in marketing, HR and finance, we have women. But the technical side is very important to the telecommunications industry," says Khawam.

Another of the region's senior female executives, Zain Group's chief regulatory officer Lynne Dorward, says that it is this historical focus on the technical aspects that set the status quo. "At the outset, prior to liberalisation and privatisation, telecommunications was almost exclusively the domain of engineers," she says. "At that stage, the engineering field was male dominated."

More opportunities for women started to materialise as telecoms expanded and evolved and began to focus on sales, marketing, and customer service, in turn creating more opportunities for women.

The legacy of the focus on the technical side has not only created a situation where women are outnumbered by men at most levels in telcos, it has also acted as a barrier to promotion, according to Richard Guest, partner at executive search firm Ingram and Partners.

"It is rare for HR directors or communications directors to rise internally to the role of CEO," he says. "If we then look at the functions that more often lead to CEO roles, finance, operations, commercial and technical, there is certainly an underrepresentation of women."

The region

The gender gap that exists in the telecoms sector is by no means exclusive to the Middle East and Africa, and in fact, there is evidence to suggest that the region is more advanced than other parts of the world when it comes to an equal representation of the sexes.

Dorward points out that the heads of the telecommunications regulatory authority in both Oman (TRA Oman) and Qatar (ICT Qatar) are women and that the former head of the TRC in Jordan is female. And few telecom companies in the Middle East, Africa or indeed the rest of the world can claim to have such an equitable split between male and female at the most senior level as MTC Touch in Lebanon, where four of the eight director and C-level positions are filled by women, including the role of chief technical officer.

This change has occurred as a result of the widening scope of operators, and also because of an increasing number of women signing up for technical courses at colleges and universities. But despite the increasing interest in information and technology among women, more could be done to encourage women into the industry, Dorward says, adding that there is still a shortage of good telecommunications courses, particularly in the non technical domains of the sector.

"There is a need for universities and colleges to expand the telecommunications curricula. In addition, these institutions could adopt a more pro-active stance in encouraging women to enter this field.  Such encouragement should start at the secondary school level when the universities and colleges visit the schools to attract future students."

Further change will come as a result of hiring, training and related personnel development, but the Zain regulatory boss cautions that it will not happen overnight.  In order to increase the number of women in senior roles women need to be convinced that the opportunities exist for them to progress.

The best fit

Not all senior people have progressed organically in an organisation; sometimes it is easier to move up by moving out. There always will be hiring from outside an organisation, and this is the second of the two gateways that have to be passed through in order to reach the top of an organisation.When it comes to new hires, market forces have also had an important role to play, according to Abbed Anabtawi, head of telecommunications for the Middle East and Africa for recruitment consultancy RP International. He says that operators and vendors always choose the most suitable employee, regardless of gender.

"The market is competitive and the pressure is on. It doesn't matter, as long as the person is fit to do the job. I don't think the gender divide comes into it," he says. "Our top priority is to find someone that can do the job and fits in the role, and that comes from their knowledge, experience and cultural fit. And I think vendors and operators in the Gulf and Middle East are keen to get someone that is capable. The market is competitive. And the best-fit candidate must exist for the right job."

Anabtawi maintains that in his experience operators and vendors in the region always try to choose the most suitable employee, regardless of the gender.

But Guest says that some telcos do stipulate the sex of candidates they want to fill a role and that it is most often the case at group level or commercial client facing roles, and particularly where Saudi Arabia is an important market.

Comparing the gender balance at local companies and multinationals with a base in the region shows a similar makeup of men occupying the top jobs, he says. "The most prominent reason for this is the importance of the Saudi market for vendors to the telecom operators.

Those in senior positions within vendors are predominantly client facing within commercial departments and the assumption is that men will have greater success in building relationships and writing business in Saudi than women. As such when vendors search for such talent, internally or externally, they are reticent to consider women."

In a male-dominated, patriarchal society such as Saudi Arabia it is difficult to see how MTC Touch's board could be replicated in the Kingdom any time soon. The reason women are well represented in countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, Anabtawi says, is partly because liberalisation came sooner to the Levant than other parts of the Middle East, and that the effects can now be seen among the senior management positions of telcos based there.

Market liberalisation has now occurred, to a greater or lesser degree, in all of the Gulf states, but it will take a more fundamental shift than the issuing of additional operator licences before an equal number of women feature in the top level decision making roles in the telcos of some of the Gulf countries.

  Individual choices

It is not simply a case of employers choosing men over women. Wider social and professional influences are at play that are specific to the region, that can influence the candidates, which in turn affects the size of the pool of talent that employers can choose from. Sometimes, it is the candidates that make the choices for the employers.

"From a professional perspective many women in Europe, Asia and North America who are not well acquainted with this region have preconceptions about the challenges they would face in building relationships with stakeholders and in leading teams and exerting influence in the professional arena," says Guest. "Irrespective of whether this is purely perception or reality it often diminishes the likelihood of interest from those approached."

Locations also play an important role. On the operator side, the majority of businesses are headquartered in countries deemed sub-optimal for families. In these situations men are often willing to take up the appointment while there family remain domiciled elsewhere however women are far less likely to leave behind their families and take up opportunities living alone in such countries."

The benefits of privatisation

After taking up a position in sales and marketing with Bell Canada, Zain's Lynne Dorward migrated to the international consulting field, leading to roles in Latin America and then the Middle East and Africa.

She says: "The pursuit of telecom privatisation and new licence acquisitions required considerable regulatory assessment and involvement and I gradually build up the expertise both based on subject matter and regional knowledge that led Zain to recruit me."

For Orange Jordan's CEO, Nayla Khawam, privatisation also provided the setting for her career development. She says that her path to the top began with the grounding she received as an employee with France Telecom 25 years ago working with the French government on the privatisation of the sector, looking specifically at the issue of price caps.

"I was very involved; I was asked to go to the heart of the system. I was regional director and I think my career as a market decision maker started then."