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UN approach to women in tech

Real Conversations podcast | S4 E12 | September 15, 2022




Experienced Senior Vice President International with a demonstrated history of working in the telecommunications industry. Skilled in Business Process, Coaching, Service-Level Agreements (SLA), Customer Relationship Management (CRM), and IT Service Management.

Despite everything, women still lag behind in the workplace. They’re still paid less, they’re still less likely to reach senior positions and this still happens in a surprising range of countries. And what’s more, things are generally worse in the tech industry.  Mardia Niehaus, senior VP of HR at Deutsche Telekom talks about what can be done about it.  

Below is a transcript of this podcast. Some parts have been edited for clarity. 

Michael Hainsworth: Under the United Nations Women Collaboration framework, Nokia has been working on an Action for Leadership program and recently Nokia invited Deutsche Telekom into its program to address this important issue.  Because, despite two generations of effort, gender equality in the workforce is still a challenge, and particularly in the tech industry. Efforts to enroll women into STEM related university programs lag the parity of the overall population. And even when a woman graduates into a STEM industry, they're still likely to be paid less than their male counterparts despite equal pay laws. Mardia Niehaus is the senior VP of HR at Deutsche Telekom and worked with Nokia on this program. We began by discussing the current state of gender parity in the tech industry today.

Mardia Niehaus: Unfortunately, Michael, it’s not a good story. One would've expected parity as 50% of the population is female and in Germany 50% of university graduates are female, but when I then look at the numbers in our technology space, we cannot be satisfied.

MH: Do you see this as a systemic social issue?

MN: I do unfortunately believe that it is. I think there are so many systemic issues still. A deep cultural view of the role of women. I'm coming from South Africa, and it was a little bit of a shock when you look at Germany specifically, which is a leader in the economy in Europe economically, and you expect us as a German society to be further ahead, but there is still a very strong culturally ingrained view of what a woman should be and should do, especially when it comes to family and childcare.

MH: That's unusual to me as a member of Generation X, I recall in the 1980s, we referred to them as working women. And it was an unusual thing that a woman was working outside the home. And there was so much talk about having to juggle motherhood and the career. I would've assumed over the following 40 years we would've made some progress in this department.

MN: I also thought so. When I started my career, Michael, we were talking about this topic extensively. And we were thinking that we were trailblazing in terms of the initiatives that we were taking to change this. And when I look at where we are today and I look at the progress that we've made, I am really saddened. I think when we talk to young women about this, there is still unfortunately, a lot of prejudice that you find within organizations, sadly, even within the tech space, but very clearly still a deep-seated belief that there's certain roles, that is the domain of women let us put it that way, and not so much of men.

MH: Do you think it may be technology related specifically, as I say, back in the 1980s, technology was really a new thing. We really did not have a broad-based technological world until, I would argue, the year 2000. Is it just the case that this is an industry that is behind the times, or do you think it is broad based?

MN: It is sadly broad based. I think it is exacerbated in the technology environment. A lot of this has to do with access. In education you don’t find a lot of women in the STEM field and studying STEM activities. I think it has to do with access and then having a number of people to choose from when you then go into these tech fields. This has to do with the fact that technology is relatively new, although this is such a sad topic for me, Michael, because if you look at technology, the fundamental belief and a belief that we have here at Technology and Innovation at Deutsche Telekom is that we should use technology for good.

And technology has the capability to impact so many lives in a positive way, and also to create a healthier planet for all of us. Technology is part of so many solutions to human problems, and it is something that should be explored much more. When I specifically look at the state of the world, when you look at how women and children are often impacted by many different things; by wars, famine, social events, it is something that we should look at. How can we help use technology to get out of these situations?

MH: And what's your answer? How do we leverage technology to help get more women into STEM? Are we starting at an early enough level in high school?

MN: I think this is one of the answers. One of the answers is to obviously expose young children from an early age around making people curious. I read a little bit about a young woman who got into the STEM field. Typically, when you ask them, why they get into this field, it is around curiosity. It is around understanding the world. It is both dealing with it at a systemic level to really deal with the cultural aspect of freeing women in a way, to be able to be interested and to be curious, because I don't think that women are less curious about the world and the way that it works.

In many places in the world, if you educate women, you create whole societies who can be uplifted. It is precisely using this technology to excite, gain interest, expose. If I just look at farmers in Africa, for example, they are female and they are small farmers who have to put food on the table. We can educate those women using technology to provide information on weather patterns and farming issues

MH: It feels to me like focusing on young girls in high school is a little too late. As the father of a young daughter, I have been teaching her the importance of curiosity since the day she was born.

MN: I think it is about exposing, about reading, about not expecting a stereotypical behavior from women. I just read an article about a young woman who was going into mechanical engineering. I am also mentoring someone in that field. She told me that when she decided to become a mechanical engineer, she had such pushback from her family because they said that classic careers as a woman was a teacher or a nurse. Still to this day, these are seen as the respectable roles. I think a lot of this has to do also about how we are enabling women to keep on working despite other commitments, despite family commitments, because I sometimes have the sense that a lot of women feel they need to choose. They need to choose a career in whichever field, but then specifically for STEM fields, or having to choose to have a family or to have children.

And this is something that I've found very much prevalent still in our society. I am hopeful in the newer generation, the younger generation that is starting to change. They have greater awareness. But I think this is also where men play an incredibly important role. I have three sons so for me it was very important - in my education of them and my exposure of them to the world - to influence their behavior so they support roles of happy, fulfilled working woman and immediately addressing the topic if they see prejudice creeping in. Because I think we need to raise young boys and young men as feminists, as advocates for women, and in supporting that because without that support, we will not create the change that is necessary.

MH: You mentioned you're mentoring a woman in mechanical engineering. What makes a right role model for girls to get into STEM?

MN: I believe it is this topic of, I can satisfy my curiosity. I can do whatever I want to do, so that when you look at your daughter, she can be whoever she wants to be. She does not have to choose. She can create this space in her life for those choices as any man could. We never ask a man, are you planning to have kids? And we literally still have some of those questions being asked of women in the workplace. Ideal role models are women and men who are happy, fulfilled and who are not resentful because they had to make certain choices and not burnt out. I am often wondering if because my generation or the generation before had to fight so hard for this, whether we are seeing in this slightly younger generation a backlash, where they looked maybe at woman like me and thought, "Oh, it was too hard. There were too many choices that needed to be made." When you said you can have it all, what does that mean? Does that actually mean burning out because you just cannot manage everything? It is just not possible at every point in time, in every sphere of your life, to give a hundred percent. There are certain times when you have to do more in the one area, less in the other, and we need to enable that. And that's also, I think, an area where technology has a massive role to play.

MH: What convinced you to join Nokia’s UN Women collaboration?

MN: I think it was exactly this topic, Michael, is a huge awareness that we still have some way to go. It was the feeling that the UN comes with a very specific mindset, which I really bought into, which is, how do we use technology for good? How do we do something that has a nurturing impact on people, but also on the world? Within the context of being a business, I am very mindful also that being part of Deutsche Telekom and being in a business environment, we have a mandate to also make money, to also progress. And it's finding a way of bringing all these factors together.

And what was interesting to me was the UN mindset, which addresses this greater good and how do we use technology to address some of the challenges we face in the world at the moment? But also, the opportunity to do this together with Nokia, who is a partner in the technology sphere and where I thought, well, there's a different kind of learning that we have if we bring different groups together and different people together. And it really proved successful in that way for me.

MH: Tell me, how does this program work?

MN: The whole purpose behind this program was to create an environment which was balanced, you could look at it and you say, "But all of the talents, all of the people that we had in the program was female. So, is that balanced?" But that's an interesting topic. When we had a discussion with the women, whether they liked the constellation of all female groups or whether they would suggest for a future initiative for that to be mixed, there was very clear feedback to have it initially female focused because there was a safe space that was created. When we talk about an environment of psychological safety, we know that innovation happens in these spaces and spaces where people feel safe. And I think that the whole purpose of this, which was looking at the design of some innovative products or services, which takes into consideration the current reality in a sustainable way.

And for me, this is what the UN brought, the broader picture, also the initiatives and the learning around sustainability, around the challenges that we face as mankind. And then Nokia and a Deutsche Telekom from their different vantage points and different perspectives, bringing their tech view. I think the important thing was also that there was never the idea that we had to come out with this killer application or this brilliant product or this brilliant service. If that happens, it is fantastic, it is an additional, it is a byproduct, but it was more about this journey and the learning that people could jointly undergo. And it was really something that we tested. We'd never done this before with another organization. And this was a unique journey that we started to travel.

MH: What have you learned from Nokia and what has Nokia learned from you?

MN: People talents that are taking part from a Deutsche Telekom perspective are mentored by Nokia leaders and mentors and vice versa. So, we deliberately wanted to have that exchange. A lot of the learnings I believe has been at a very individual level also, with very individual personalities and at different views. I think we will still be hearing about the learnings that we've had as an organization, but we also, we have different cultures as organizations.

And this is part of, and I think it was just a fantastic way in a very safe space to expose people to different cultures, different ways of working. I think one of the challenges that we always face in Deutsche Telekom, now of course with this group of women it is not so prevalent because they are younger, but as a company, Deutsche Telekom is aging rapidly. People tend to be with the company for a very long time. So, over a longer period, there’s the danger that we are not seeing what life is looking like in different organizations, in different geographies, in different places. And I think this is extremely valuable for each of the participants.

MH: What about you personally? What would you say your biggest takeaway has been from participating in the leadership program?

MN: For me, it was absolutely confirming that not staying in your little box, not trying to do this, especially a topic like this. This topic around gender equality, around women in tech, in STEM, is a problem that we are all grappling with. This is not uniquely German or uniquely Deutsche Telekom. And when we want to find the answers to this challenge, we need to also broaden the lenses with which we look at it. And we might think that we are doing brilliant work within our programs and with our strategies, but I really do believe taking different perspectives, different viewpoints, in different cultures. For example, we had one of our events in Hungary, that was a very powerful experience for all of the women involved and for me.

MH: What is Deutsche Telekom doing internally to promote gender equality?

MN: Quite a number of programs. And what we are trying to do is, because I think the danger, Michael, if you isolate this and you try to have programs which is only focused, you could get the feeling of exclusion, again. And there's a lot of discussion that we are an aging organization and there is fear in the white male middle age population and they’re also asking but what about us, where are we going? We have many different initiatives from a number of communities, self-organized communities within the organization. We have programs that are linked to talent and succession management, but what we specifically decided was to not make it separate. In other words, when we look at our talent and succession management program, we have a global talent pool, talent hub, which is for all Deutsche Telekom employees and talents.

But, of course, with a very specific focus and objective to ensure that we have enough female representation and enough general diverse perspective. And that is gender, that is a major focus, but also international because we are building a much more international organization. And this is also one of the aims is to make it not too German centric and not too male. Taking a program, which is a talent management program with the same opportunities for learning, education, it's linked to very specific education programs to upskill. And we've had really great success when we look at our succession slides and we've made some decisions in terms of how many of the people that has on a succession should be diverse, should be female.

And this was one of the ways in which we are doing that. Then we've supported, we have many initiatives like the startup community, which brings graduates into the organization with a focus on bringing in young graduates. There was the Ada Fellowship, which is an external initiative where we supported Deutsche Telekom women to get involved in this program, a program, doing a lot of work to enable also to take away the barriers. Topics like Breaking the Glass Ceiling, which is a program that we've run as a pilot specifically in the technology space, which has a lot to do with unconscious bias, where people often are really oblivious to the fact that they either use language, which is offensive or exclude people. A lot of training and focus on those topics.

MH: If there was one thing you'd like the listener to take away from this conversation, what would it be?

MN: That is a very difficult question. It is to say that I believe there's a huge responsibility because this world that we are in has so many problems that need to be fixed, which only could be fixed if you have a joint male and female view on it. If I just look at our customers, at least half of our customers are female. And if we don't have in our teams within the organization a balance of perspective, we will lose out at capturing the market that we have out there.

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