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Bridging the gender divide in the ICT sector is still a pressing concern. While the future for women in this industry seems very bright and full of potential, there is still a long way to go.

It is common knowledge that women are particularly underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers. There has been a great deal of awareness surrounding this issue and we are only just beginning to see a greater uptake in female-held positions and interest in these subjects over the past few years. The Middle East has been relentless in ensuring greater inclusion for women in the ICT sector and indeed, great progress has been made.

Through LinkedIn, the World Economic Forum found that the gender gap was particularly prevalent in the technical frontier. Female employees account for only 26% in data and AI roles, 15% in engineering and 12% in cloud computing jobs.

The world is currently going through one of the most significant digital transformation journeys. The pandemic fast-tracked digital transformation everywhere and the lack of women in the ICT industry means that a whole new world might be in the making with less input from women; this is particularly concerning.

Is the telecoms industry still a ‘Man’s World’ or has it changed? Is the Middle East leading the way to gender equality in this space or is it lagging? Telecom Review reached out to four significant female figures within the industry in the MENA region to discuss these issues and to hear about their very own personal experiences.

Fatima Karim- Huawei

Fatima Karim, senior manager of spectrum regulation at Huawei, has been in the industry for over 23 years within which she worked for several key ICT industry players in a number of different countries. Karim has had the privilege to experience the evolving nature of the telecoms industry first-hand.

She noted that her first job involved planning and deploying a GSM network which was hailed as a technological revolution, perhaps one of the biggest innovations in the mobile communications space back then.

It is no doubt that the entire landscape of the telecommunications industry has changed drastically, going through revolution after revolution, ensuring to keep innovation at the very heart of everything they do. Not only did the technology evolve, but so has the role of women in this sector, according to Karim.

“Over the years, I have witnessed an increasing number of women becoming engineers, researchers and experts in the telecom industry. While many have taken on managerial roles, women are still underrepresented in executive roles.”

When asked about her stance on the gender dimension of the ICT sector both in the region and across the rest of the world, she stated that she has actually met far more female engineers in the MENA region compared to Europe.

“Women need to be empowered to reach higher management positions and help consolidate greater gender equality in our society,” added Karim.

“Working with Huawei for the past few years has given be some fascinating insight into a high performance company culture. The company seeks and rewards talented people independently of gender. Huawei holds dedication, integrity, performance and intellect in high regard.”

Reflecting on her personal experience as a female industry leader, she stated: “I am grateful that throughout my career, I was given the trust, flexibility and support that I needed to be able to have the right balance between my work and family obligations and to empower me. I hope more and more women in the region can benefit from similar opportunities.”

Raluca Berchiu- SES

According to Raluca Berchiu, Growth Marketing at world-leading satellite operator SES, the most effective way to promote the participation of women in ICT leadership roles is to instill confidence and ambition from an early age. She believes that we all have a part to play in shaping our daughters’ futures by encouraging them to be self-assured with a desire to lead and make an impact on the world.

“The path to female leadership doesn’t start when a woman is appointed into a position of power. It starts earlier in life when a woman’s view of leadership starts to take shape: the values she learns, exposure she experiences, support she receives, and opportunities she encounters.”

She started her career as a government employee in Romania, while simultaneously juggling two different university courses.  She was eager to study international relations and law so she could quickly move on to a Master’s program in marketing.

“Although I had done well and had progressed through a couple of Government departments, I realized that it was the right time to challenge myself and get international experience. It was a big dream of mine to go overseas.  I had already visited Dubai a few times and I was fascinated.”

Prior to joining SES in 2016, Raluca was co-founder of a Dutch-based dredging company where she put all the knowledge she had gained into practice. While it seemed her future was mapped out, she had no idea where her life and career path would take her.

“I was asked as a child: ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I never thought I would end up working miles away from home in the dredging industry – modeling the bottom of the sea – and then to do a career jump to another awesome business that puts satellites high up in space. How unpredictable the machinery of life really is!”

As a woman leading in the ICT industry, Berchiu admits there are no shortcuts. It is a sector that is fast-moving, dynamic and competitive and therefore requires a huge amount of hard work and focus. Nevertheless, she believes that all the hard work is worth it to be a part of an energetic and productive environment.

“ICT is one of the most interesting sectors due to its fast tempo and novelty; that’s why it requires more effort and attention building up technical and interpersonal profile and keeping up with this rhythm every single day.”

In an industry that’s constantly progressing, she states that “it is vital to understand the dynamics of your surrounding environment and become more innovative. Nowadays the technological advancement can penetrate much quicker than before and innovation must occur more rapidly in order to stay competitive as a business. In this highly competitive environment internal and external collaboration is seen as more sustainable.

Knowledge is power, and enthusiasm pulls the switch. A highly recommended book is “The Innovator’s DNA” or for those interested to dive deeper into the discovery skills of disruptive innovations, the course of Professor. Nathan Furr on “Innovation in the Age of Disruption” would help you discover your innovation capabilities and take your ideas to the next level.”

Thankfully, most companies have a values-driven culture that emphasizes the importance of collaboration, diversity, and inclusion. In the Middle East and across the world, there is a lot of emphasis on supporting women’s careers, driving female success, and empowering the next generation of women in ICT.

“There are many great initiatives to help women to gain more confidence and skills. For example, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) marks annually an “International Girls in ICT Day,” aiming to create a global environment that empowers and encourages girls to consider studies and careers in the growing field of ICT.”

“Telecom Review is also contributing to this by featuring women in many of their issues or extending invites to women in their industry-related panel discussions.”

“While companies and organizations need to be innovative in developing programs and initiatives to support aspiring leaders and help them to advance in their career, women also need to take action in this regard.”

When asked what advice she would give to her younger self, SES’ marketing lead replied:

“Surround yourself with people who challenge you, push you to be better, and make you happy. Every problem has a solution – be creative enough to ask the right questions to find it. No matter what people think of you, one thing is certain: You’re never as good or bad as they say you are. Save your mental energy to push you towards your goals. Don’t let the things you can’t control affect the things you can control. “Don’t die before you die” – inaction breeds doubt and fear. Anything that costs you your peace of mind is too expensive. Finally: Your health is your wealth. It is the most important thing in your life.”

Zahra Zayat- OSN

Zahra Zayat, senior vice president of OTT, digital and telco, OSN, believes that women must work ten times harder and be three times more qualified than men to move up the professional ladder.

“Our industry is heavily dominated by men and that is the reality in the region. I have seen and experienced this throughout my career where I have held positions in management consulting, finance, banking, media and OTT.

“Despite our achievements in the workplace, inequalities still persist, and we see this clearly in C-level and board directors’ positions where women remain a clear minority.”

Prior to joining OSN earlier this year, Zahra was VP and Head of Middle East and North Africa for YuppTV.  She is passionate about re-inventing the future of TV and revolutionizing the way TV is viewed across the MENA region.

Throughout her time in the industry, she has learned to use her voice to highlight where double standards exist and aims to change inequitable gender stereotypes. She is committed to improving gender diversity and inclusion policies by creating growth opportunities for qualified women in the industry.

“I have learned to be brutal about highlighting double standards and what I dislike about both work and culture. But I am also part of the process of finding a solution. I have seen that male colleagues have become the biggest allies and supporters.

“The UAE government has also played a great role in raising awareness towards wider acceptance of women leaders. As a woman working in the OTT industry, I see a great improvement in the organizational support system motivating females to grow their careers.”

Media should play a crucial role in raising awareness and strategically changing the mindset of both women and men, according to Zayat.

“Women securing a meaningful seat at the table is the responsibility of everyone: From women themselves to the media, industry leaders, and governments. I have seen the way the workplace is structured, the stereotypes, and the fact that women are held to deliver higher standards. This plays on our weaknesses, which is the reluctance to self-promote or to ask for what we want.

 “We all have a collective responsibility in uplifting the way women perceive themselves and the way they are perceived in the workplace. As a woman, I have to play a better role in supporting and coaching other female colleagues. Media plays a crucial role in shifting mindsets and in pushing structural and governance changes.

“For example, companies should force early retirement of board members who have been serving for a long time and a minimum % female representation should be set at C-level and board directors’ positions.” 

However, OSN’s senior VP certainly doesn’t downplay the struggles that women face. From balancing work and family to fighting gender stereotypes, women must overcome challenges every day in order to retain their position in the industry.

“It has been a long tough journey with many sleepless nights. Women face many obstacles throughout their career trying to balance family, kids, and work requirements. Making expensive sacrifices, fighting gender stereotypes, and being held to higher standards are major challenges. Kindness is seen as a weakness; whereas assertiveness is seen as bullish.

“I made many sacrifices to climb up the ladder, but I learned to be loud and clear in my requests and in picking the correct fights to push change. Stamina, persistence, and forward thinking combined with the ability to strategize and create value for the business are key drivers for success.”

Despite the unique challenges that women face in male-dominated industries, many women, like Zayat, are thriving in these fields. She concludes that there are several strategies that can help you become a female leader in the midst of imbalances:

“Play the game and strategize, build alliances and collect votes – there is nothing wrong with that. Take risks and believe that you can handle the outcome, no matter what it is. Don’t hold back and wait for your achievements to be noticed. Speak up and show what you’re good at. Demonstrate how you meet the standards and exceed them. Above all, call out double standards when you see them. Until you do, they’ll go unnoticed. But make sure you present solutions.”

“The industry we operate in is so exciting and is in great need for female leaders. There’s a huge future for women in media and ICT. I always say that the time has come when the phrase “momma’s boy” will make our sons proud!”

Radwa Hafez - Nokia MEA

According to Radwa Hafez, head of sales strategy and operations for Nokia Middle East and Africa, the ICT industry is “one of the most exciting industries to work in, now more than ever”.

“This industry has been through a lot and with every change, whether it is a merger or acquisition, you learn something new. We have witnessed how the industry has managed to consistently reshape itself to adapt to the market needs and refine its output to match the latest technology trends,” Hafez continued.

Hafez has been working in the industry for about 20 years and she has witnessed the beginning of the mobile era in the MEA region, all the way through to the deployment of 5G.

Reflecting on her journey throughout the industry, she spoke about the very beginning of the mobile era and said, “Having a mobile used to be a sign of status since the handheld device cost a fortune back then and the cost of a minute on air was more than most people could afford.”

“From being a niche commodity or luxurious thing to becoming a basic human need, who would have thought that telecommunication technology would be considered as one of the basic human needs and rights?” she added.

Indeed, the industry has reinvented itself several times since then and the mobile phone has now become a necessity, a basic human need.

Hafez echoed this sentiment and said: “Throughout the past 10 years alone, we have moved from 3G to 4G and now 5G. The concept of telecom being a separate underlying layer for data transport no longer exists. Today, telecom is an integral part of every technology we have available to us. It is not only about traffic transport but instead, it is about management, optimization, security and integrating AI to make sense of these massive data that are constantly moving from one hub to the other. It became about the use cases that will change the way we do things.

It became an integral part of the forces changing and shaping the world around us both on an individual and an industrial level with the massive machine to machine communication.”

“Moreover, Nokia has taken this technology a few notches above, taking the Nokia 4G network to literally the moon, as we have recently announced our partnership with NASA to deploy the first LTE/4G network on the moon before eventually upgrading the system to the latest technology of 5G,” she said.

In terms of her experience, as a woman, in the industry, she believes that there has been a significant uptake in ICT jobs by females but still thinks that we still have a long way to go.

“Several multinational companies agree there is a need for diversity and are keen on having women in their executive ranks, however, the issue is that there is not enough supply in the talent pool to choose from,” she said. “We are struggling to attract female talent into this sector, and when we succeed to do so, we fail to sustain them up until they reach middle management or executive positions.”

When asked about her opinion on women getting involved in the industry, she said, “We have been seeing more women in the tech industry in the past few years, but unfortunately, we still have a long way to go. There’s still a lack of female talent in the overall tech industry, specifically the telecom sector.”

In fact, Nokia has already launched an initiative called StrongHer, which is an inclusive employee network that aims to ensure that women are properly represented and that they are ensured the same opportunities as men in all business domains and functions.

A statement on Nokia’s website about the initiative read: “StrongHer is an inclusive employee network aiming at a company where women have the same opportunities as men and are well represented in all business domains and functions. Initiated and led by employees for employees, StrongHer is a multi-award-winning initiative which contributes to women’s empowerment, helping them unleash their potential and magnify their business contribution, and increase the representation of women at all levels and in all job functions in our company. The network is a grassroots movement created in 2011 by six female employees in France and is open to all employees, men and women, executives and non-executives.”

As of January 2019, the intitative had over 3000 members in 70 countries across 5 continents, with 43 active chapters led by a community of over 90 leaders and 24% male membership.

Commenting on this initiative, Hazem said, “StrongHer is an outstanding initiative which contributes to women’s empowerment, helping them unleash their potential, magnify their business contribution, and increase the representation of women at all levels and in all job functions in our company. These kinds of initiatives are required in the industry to attract and retain female talent at all levels.”

Nokia’s statement also noted that: “StrongHer advances gender diversity by offering networking opportunities, personal development, and a think-tank on leadership and management. It also provides exposure to diverse role models for women and men, along with business contacts within and beyond the technology sector. StrongHer has been an eye opener on the many causes for low representation of women in the ICT industry and in leadership roles. There is not just one glass ceiling, but some often occuring explicit or more implicit patterns and reasons that are encountered at various stages of women’s lives and careers, caused by others and women themselves.”

Women are a minority by number within the Information and Communication Technology sector and at Nokia, but StrongHer does not want women to be exceptions or feel isolated. Through its activities and the commitment of its members, StrongHer acts to change the way people think about gender and talent.”

When asked what more could be done to encourage more young women to consider going down the telecoms route, she said that it all begins in schools by changing the perception that tech or telecoms are only fit for males.

“Let’s make STEM cool and introduce it to girls as “fun science” at a young age.”

She added, “We need to raise more awareness about the available career options and invite young girls to shadow engineers at work to help them see how they are changing the world with technology. As the female youth grows older, they need to have access to success stories of women in the tech industry.”

She believes that giving fresh graduates the opportunity and support to enter the telecom industry is essential and can be done by assigning the right mentors and sponsors to help guide them and ensure greater and easier access to jobs in the industry.

“The need for each stage differs so we need to have programs that will cater to each stage whether it be school, university or fresh graduates, in an effort to increase the pool of female talent interested in the telecom industry.”
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