Women in telecoms: A long journey to the top

Author: Michael Newlands
Published: 2016-04-04

On the recent International Women’s Day (March 8) talk at TechPolis turned to women in telecoms, and quickly became a discussion of the apparent lack of women in the telecoms industry’s top ranks. Having racked my brains and come up with various female CEOs in the ICT industry as a whole (Ursula Burns—Xerox, Ginny Rometty—IBM, Safra Cruz—Oracle, Marissa Mayer—Yahoo, Carly Florina/Meg Whitman—HP, Sun Yafang—Huawei), I drew a blank with major mobile service providers.

So I fired off emails to ex-colleagues of mine who are now editors of telecoms publications asking why women could be leaders of countries, heads of all sorts of major corporations but not major telecoms companies. Nobody wanted to speak on the record but the messages I got ranged from “you’re not looking hard enough mate” to “it’s happening but more slowly than I’d like”.  So I did some detailed research.

Back in 2010 Informa Telecoms publication Telecoms.com did a survey of women in telecoms, and found there were very few, with none at really senior positions in top groups, but there were two Vodafone country CEOs, Muriel Anton in the Czech Republic and Liliana Solomon in Romania. Talking of the top 40 most influential and important executives in the industry, the report said: “If there was an overwhelming takeaway from the project, it was the absence of female executives on the list. Only one woman was present, EU Commissioner Viviane Reding, a woman who has imposed herself on the European mobile industry with undeniable— and often unwelcome—conviction.”

In 2016 the picture has changed quite considerably in some parts of the world, notably Western Europe and Southeast Asia, although women have yet to rise through the telecoms ranks in male-dominated societies like Japan, Latin America and the Middle East.   In a survey of the group management teams of 19 top international mobile operator groups I found just one CEO, SingTel’s Chau Sock Koong, although there were 13 of CxO rank including Singtel CFO, Lim Cheng Cheng, Deutsche Telekom CTO Claudia Nemat, Telenor CFO Ruza Sabanovic, Regional CEO Africa, Middle East and Asia Pacific at Vodafone Serpil Timuray, China Mobile CFO Hou Rui, COO at Hutchison Tan Yuen Chun, CFO at the same operator Cheng Wai Sin, and Orange CTO Mari-Noëlle Jégo-Laveissière.  Most of the rest of the 24 women we identified in senior management were in more “traditional” female roles like HR, marketing/PR/media relations and legal/secretarial.

Women in group level senior management at top mobile operators

  CEO/COO/CFO/CTO Other Total out of (%)
SingTel 3 2 5 of 8 (63%)
Orange 2 2 4 of 12 (33%)
TeliaSonera   3 3 of 9 (33%)
Axiata   3 3 of 12 (25%)
Telenor 2 2 4 of 21 (19%)
Hutchison 2   2 of 11 (18%)
China Mobile 1 1 2 of 13 (15%)
DT (T-Mobile) 1   1 of 7 (14%)
Vodafone 1 1 2 of 15 (13%)
Telefonica   1 1 of 8 (13%)
Verizon   2 2 of 15  (13%)
MTN 1   1 of 9 (11%)
AT&T   1 1 of 10 (10%)
Vimpelcom   1 1 of 11 (9%)
SK Telecom   2 2 of 25 (8%)
NTT DoCoMo     0 of 25 (0%)
America Movil     0 of 22 (0%)
Etisalat     0 of 10 (0%)
STC     0 of 20 (0%)
Total     34 of 263 (13%)


There are also women running country operations for major multinational groups, include the core countries in some cases. These include Fabiene Dulac, CEO of Orange France, Berit Svendsen, CEO of Telenor Norway and Helene Barnekow, CEO of TeliaSonera Sweden. Orange, Telenor and Vodafone all have several CEOs of country subsidiaries. On a smaller scale, but still a multinational, Tele2 has a female Group CEO in Allison Kirkby. Outside of the top multinationals there are also female CEOs at Belgian State-owned, single-country operators Belgacom (Dominique Leroy) and Iraqi operator Korek (Ghada Gebara).

But, not unlike in 2010, perhaps the woman with the most influence on mobile telecommunications is not actually in telecommunications at all. She is Margrethe Vestager, European competition commissioner who makes key decisions on telecoms M&A activity in the EU which have major repercussions on not just individual players but the mobile industry as a whole.


Photo credit: The epp group
License: CC-BY-ND 2.0

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