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Winds of Change - Women begin to make their mark in telecom

March 15, 2009
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At the moment, they are few, but their numbers are on an upswing. Today, women are making inroads, albeit slowly, into the country's thriving telecom sector at all levels –­ entry, middle and even the top. Who can, for instance, forget the contribution and presence of Motorola's former chief technology officer (CTO) Padmashree Warrior, who worked with the company in a senior technical capacity for nearly 20 years. She is now with Cisco as its CTO.

The Indian telecom sector, which is still relatively young, having achieved growth mostly over the past decade, is today a frontrunner among other industries with over 360 million mobile subscribers and counting. The sector holds a lot of promise, with most of rural India yet to be tapped.

However, adding more than 10 million subscribers a month cannot be easy, especially in the face of the global economic slowdown. So, how are operators managing this level of growth? A key factor is investing in people. Over the years, the demand for qualified personnel –­ both men and women –­ has only increased. In order to get the right talent, telecom companies have been hand-picking their personnel from engineering institutions, bschools, multinationals and competitors.They have also been offering big salaries and attractive packages to attract and retain promising staff.

However, there is little doubt that India's telecom industry employs more men than women. Women, though present at the entry and middle levels, are yet to make a significant mark in the higher echelons. In contrast, in sectors like power that have had a head start, there are many prominent women at decision-making levels. Jyoti Arora, commissioner, higher education, Haryana government, shares her experience while she was managing director of the Haryana Power Generation Corporation (HPGC): "A large number of women executives from the IAS and allied services have made their way into stateowned power utilities and have risen up the ranks. This is not the case in telecom."

Telecom public sector unit Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) does have a substantial representation of women. But 50 per cent of the women officers at the middle or senior level do not have a technical background. They have come in from services such as Indian post and telegraph, accounts and finance. "However, that does not negate the fact that many important positions such as member, finance; adviser, finance; and director are held by women at BSNL," says Arundati Panda, general manager, taxation and establishment finance (EF) at BSNL.

Lack of technical education
A cross-section of women employed in the telecom industry who tele.net spoke to feel that lack of technical expertise is one of the main impediments to their progress. Panda and Rekha Jain, professor, computer and information systems group at IIM Ahmedabad, agree with this. The problem, they believe, is that a decade or two ago, fewer women acquired technical skills owing either to home circumstances or lack of motivation. This explains why they have a limited presence in sectors like aeronautics, heavy engineering, IT and telecom, where technical skills are important.

Sridevi Koneru, general manager, wireless networking business unit, India, Cisco, Inc., observes that in the past, there were some enterprising and technically experienced women professionals who made their mark in different industries. "But their numbers were low. Schools, a few decades ago, saw less women graduating in hard sciences such as engineering and maths, which is why we see fewer women at senior levels today," says Koneru.

In fact, the broad perception is that the telecom industry needs personnel with an engineering background as well as a strong sales force, for which men are better suited than women.

Carving a niche
But that trend is slowly changing. The IT and telecom revolution of the early 1990s triggered the initial change. Technical jobs started becoming coveted as they were associated with foreign travel, good pay, better prospects; in short, they were a good career choice.

Anita Soni, director, finance with state-run Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL), endorses this trend. "The number of women entering telecom has been increasing steadily," she notes. Today, 18 per cent of MTNL's workforce comprises women.

In private sector Bharti Airtel too, women comprise about 20 per cent of the employees at the entry level. Says Paroma Roy Chowdhury, former vice-president, corporate communications, Bharti Airtel, who recently took over as country head, corporate communications and public affairs, Google India, "As more women come into the sector, there will be a better balance. Telecom is a fast changing, high pressure sector, which offers good opportunities to the right kind of people."

Cisco's Koneru makes a relevant point. "Today, nearly 50 per cent of graduating students are women. Therefore, in a few years more women should make it to the midand senior management levels."

Women have especially proved themselves in areas such as human resource development, customer care, communication, finance and marketing. "Women bring value to the decision-making process. It makes sense for companies to attract and retain women talent at senior levels," notes Rachna Mukherjee, head, human resources, mobility business at Aircel. At Maxis Communications, Aircel's parent company, 35-45 per cent of managers are women.

Driving home the point, Kirthiga Reddy, director, Motorola Good Technology Group, India, says, "Women constitute a significant percentage of users of telecom products and services. Their input on what can drive demand is, therefore, valuable and their representation in decision-making could bring balance based on specific insights."

A niche that is well filled by women employees is research and analysis. In the race to notch up subscriber numbers, telecom operators are constantly trying to get the right mix of services for which strong market research and analysis are important. In fact, there is currently a huge demand for analysts and researchers, which is increasingly being met by women candidates.

For employers, one of the most easily measured benefits of having women on their payroll is that they tend to be more conscientious, work more diligently and do not job-hop that frequently. They tend to be more loyal, give attention to details, and make performance a priority. They are also seen to be good at nurturing and retaining talent. And women are often seen to be more balanced in decision-making.

At the workplace, the emphasis is on a gender-neutral environment with merit and performance being the key determinants of success. "Being a woman is not a topic foremost in my mind," stresses Koneru. "Over time, I have learnt how to use my strengths and develop new skills to continue in my career. The key is to bring value to the table and hold your ground in a collaborative way."

Monika Mohil, head, legal and compliance, Nokia Siemens Networks India, underscores this point. "Today women are entering all sectors, be it FMCG, IT, finance, banking or medicine. They are performing well and hence are well received."

It is a trend Arora has seen in the power sector as well. "Women engineers recruited at HPGC were initially given easier jobs, but they came up to me and asked for more challenging duties so that they could gain serious experience in all areas of the power sector." She put her faith in their abilities. "Of the women recently inducted, I hope some will reach the director level in future," she says.

Support system
While women do not really expect concessions at the workplace, organisations would stand to gain by meeting the special needs of women employees. A lot of employers today make provisions for maternity leave, flexible work hours and work-from-home opportunities.

Many women do find it difficult to go the extra mile by putting in late hours, spending time on social networking or travelling extensively, given personal pressures. But there are other trade-offs such as competence and capability that they can offer. Mukherjee, who has been associated with the IT and telecom sector for 20 years, has come to believe that a focused approach can deliver results without lowering the bar.

Moving on –­ and up
While the number of women in the telecom sector has no doubt increased, it will still be some time before they make it right to the top, especially in technical positions. As Motorola's Reddy says, "There is no denying that it is not easy to find highly qualified and experienced women on the technical side, but we make an effort to obtain the right mix without compromising on quality."

Overall, women employees are proving their mettle and showing they are equal to the best in the business. Future years should see them gain greater visibility and occupy many more of the top slots in the industry.

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