The future is female – the future of the telecommunications industry in the Middle East, that is. Or is it?
One could really come to either conclusion, based on what’s been happening lately in the industry, particularly in the Gulf. It’s common knowledge women have been vastly under-represented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers worldwide, particularly in ICT (information communications technology) careers – and the telecommunications industry has long been among the worst offenders.
In the UK, for example, women make up fewer than 20 per cent of the telecoms industry workforce. And it’s even worse in India: under 15 per cent, according to the Gender Diversity Benchmark for Asia study. These stats come despite the fact that – in almost every country around the world – there are far more women than men in higher education.
Yet progress is being made regionally. At this time last year (in 2018), there wasn’t a single female executive at Saudi Arabia’s STC, the Arab world’s largest telecommunications company. That changed in February, when Dr Moudhi Aljamea became the general manager of the ICT School at STC Academy, while Fay Al-Alshaikh became product portfolio strategy general manager in May and Maha Al-Nuhait became manager of STC’s sustainability programme. Senior executives at STC have also repeatedly said they hope for more women to become executives at the company in the near future. Yet the number of female executives at other telcos remains low.
For instance, long-time Ericsson Middle East and Africa head Rafiah Ibrahim stepped down from her role in August after several years at the helm. One of the best-known tech executives – regardless of gender – in the Middle East, her replacement is a man. Currently, of the region’s largest telecommunications companies – STC, Mobily, Telecom Egypt, Etisalat, du, Omantel, Zain, VIVA, Batelco, Ooredoo Oman, Virgin and Huawei – not one of them is led by a woman (though Zain has a female CEO for its Kuwait operations in Eaman Al Roudhan).
Telcos have claimed they plan on hiring more women, but the shift appears to be slow.
No longer ‘taboo’
One telco that is taking steps to encourage more women to join and remain within the industry is Dubai-based du’s parent company, Emirates Integrated Telecom Company (better known as EITC) – and it’s even a drive being led by and for women. Earlier this year, women at the company came together to create what’s believed to be the first women’s council for the ICT industry in the Middle East.
“The challenges women face in today’s ICT sphere are different from previous decades,” explains Noora Al Mansoori, official spokeswoman for the council.
“Globally, gender diversity, or the lack of it, is being held to account across many sectors. The ICT industry is no different. Roles that were traditionally male-orientated are now being filled by women, which signals that corporate cultures and society are motivating and encouraging us to take positions without having to face obstacles that hindered progress in the past.”
About 29 per cent of EITC’s workforce is female at present. Al Mansoori says a key part of the council’s mission is to support women already working in the industry – which could have the knock-on effect of encouraging more women to go into ICT careers if they know they’ll be treated equally and receive the necessary support.
“Gender equality is no longer a taboo subject in the corporate world. The same can be seen if we canvas the global leadership front and the various strata of our communities.”
“In previous decades, the allure of the UAE for talented professionals from across the world was high. While this trend is still apparent, attracting and retaining quality job seekers or current employees has become more difficult for some businesses as they adjust to the changing demands from employees. As the workforce has become more dynamic, diverse, and educated, the talent pool has evolved to crave workplace cultures that provide collaborative, positive and innovative environments for them to flourish.”
“While there is always room for improvement, the foundations are in place for positive organisational development. The effects of this can be lucrative for companies, and the UAE is definitely on the route towards achieving potential in this area.”
Hanan Ahmed, chairwoman of the women’s council, expands on Al Mansoori’s comments and what some of the implications could be, not just for du and the UAE, but the wider region as well. “The women’s council is representative of the growing need for diversity within our day-to-day operations,” she explains.
“Together we will form a consortium of like-minded advocates who are passionate about women’s empowerment and aligning the company’s visions to effectively promote inclusivity within the workplace, within the industry, and within the communities of our beloved country.”