When women take the helm: Wisdom from radiocommunication leaders
Although more than 25 years have passed since the Beijing Declaration, women still trail men by a long margin in many realms, including technology policy-making and leadership.
The governments that adopted the declaration at the fourth United Nations Conference on Women were convinced that “Women’s empowerment and their full participation on the basis of equality in all spheres of society, including participation in the decision-making process and access to power, are fundamental for the achievement of equality, development and peace.”
In adopting the declaration, UN member states pledged to take action to “further the advancement and empowerment of women all over the world.
While progress remains uneven, the overall picture is improving.
Slowly but surely, more women are taking the helm at major telecommunications, and information and communication technology (ICT) organizations, as well as in key international standards and policy-making bodies.
Last year, Bernadette Lewis became the first female Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organization, an intergovern‑ mental agency established more than 122 years ago. Previously, she was the first female Secretary-General of the Caribbean Telecommunications Union (CTU). “My time at CTU has certainly prepared me,” she said upon making the move.
Many of the women interviewed here — all currently or recently active in the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and its Radiocommunication Sector (ITU–R) — went through the experience of being the sole or first woman at the head of their organization, committee or standards body.
“I want every woman, every young girl to know that there is nothing to stop them from attaining such a position,” Lewis added.
“But it calls for a certain amount of dedication, discipline, and integrity to be able to navigate the many obstacles that will be thrown in their way.”
The only woman in the room
There has been no shortage of obstacles. But supportive colleagues, management and role models, as well as fair working conditions, help outstanding women advance.
“When I started my career, people would come to a meeting who didn’t know me, and automatically assume I was an administrative person,” recalls Veena Rawat, first woman to chair a World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC‑03), former Chair of ITU–R Study Group 4 on satellite services, and supported by Canada in 2010 as candidate for the position of Director of the ITU Radiocommunication Bureau.
“But I had such good support from my supervisors. They made sure to introduce me as an equal partner, part of the team. That kind of support is needed, especially when women are fewer in terms of numbers.”
In a varied public- and private-sector career, Rawat recalls: “I was the only woman for a long time. Right from the beginning when I did my PhD at Queen’s University in Canada.”
There, a supportive thesis supervisor helped Rawat overcome obstacles she faced in her research: “I needed some data from copper mines because my work was on radiocommunications in difficult environments,” she recounts. “At that time, women were not allowed in mines. But my supervisor helped me get the data by sending a male technician.”
Chair of ITU–R Study Group 3 (radio wave propagation) Carol Wilson had a similar experience. Her thesis advisor, Charles Bostian, got her interested in radiocommunications and was a real mentor through her university years and beyond.
But others were less supportive. “On the flip side, some of my fellow students, teachers, certainly some of my workplace managers were quite rude about women being engineers,” admits Wilson.
“I was motivated then to prove them wrong. I just put my heart into it and said, I can show you that I can do this. That in itself was a motivation.”
Confidence in demonstrating your capabilities is crucial, agrees Salma Jalife, former Chair of the Permanent Consultative Committee on Radiocommunications in the Inter-American Telecommunication Commission (CITEL).
As one of the very few women engineering students, Jalife had a hard time dealing with male students who would treat her as less intelligent, or as if she needed help to do her work. “I started showing them that I was at the same level,” she says. When she started helping male col‑leagues solve problems, they began to treat her as an equal.
“Feel confident in what you do and show your colleagues that you are as capable as they are,” she recommends.
Sometimes the obstacles women face can take a more abstract form. “In my career, I have hit the so-called glass ceiling,” admits Bettina Funk, Chair of the international special committee on radio interference (CISPR) at the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC).
“Sometimes you are in a position where you just can’t develop anymore. Structural things prevent you from doing so, or it’s the attitude or the culture saying: ’We don’t want to have females higher up in the hierarchy.’ You wonder why male colleagues are always getting ahead of you, even though you’re doing exactly the same work, or sometimes even doing more.”
If you can’t influence the situation, move on, Funk advises.
As Wilson sums up: “It takes women putting themselves forward, men being willing to give women a seat at the table, and employers to be willing to support women employees and put them forward for positions and give them all the scope of opportunities."
Learning to lead
The women agreed that their struggles have given them an edge in certain leadership roles, despite doubts.
“I was one of the first women to chair the PCC III. Everybody was wondering what was going to happen with a woman carrying this group,” recalls Jalife. “When you are chairing, you have to show your colleagues that you want to lead the group in a good direction. I was always open to listen and see if their opinions and comments were valuable for the group to have better positions. If you have an open mind and share knowledge with your colleagues, then you have an opportunity to be considered as an equal.”
Overcoming challenges can bring out the best in people.
“Women who do succeed, in my experience, really are very extraordinary because they’ve had to battle against all the struggles,” Wilson points out.
“In addition to doing their regular engineering work, they’ve had to put up with a lot.”
Even the proverbial female propensity to accept multi-tasking can be a positive thing, notes Cheryl Blum, former Chair of the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) Engineering Committee on mobile and personal communications systems (TR45).
“By taking care of a home, taking care of a family, participating in various organizations, both at the community level as well as in other organizations, you learn a lot of skills which you bring to your career. You learn organizational skills and time management. You learn how to prioritize your activities, compromise, and negotiate.”
The (long) way forward
At the last World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), in 2019, ITU Member States unanimously adopted a declaration that promotes gender equality, equity and parity in the work of the ITU–R.
But there is still a long way to go, according to Rawat.
“Engineering was considered a profession with a hard hat, not a job for women. In that context, we have seen the increase in participation and leadership roles. But we are nowhere close to 50/50. So while we are improving, the rate of improvement is much lower than I would like.”
Positive, successful role models are crucial to showing what is possible, she adds.
“It improves confidence significantly in women. We have to continue to do what ITU is doing with the Network of Women.”
NOW4WRC — the Network of Women for the World Radiocommunication Conferences — aims to boost women’s participation and encourage them to take on leadership roles, including as committee and conference chairs.
“It is a serious responsibility for me to be a mentor and an example,” adds Lewis.
Rawat personally attests to the success of this approach.
“Under the NOW programme and even informally within the WRC, some women I have worked with have contacted me. I see their development, and that really gives me such pleasure that this thing works.”
The focus on mentoring was inspired, in part, by the US-based We Lead (Women Empowered for Leadership Empowerment, Advancement and Development) initiative.
“The world needs more capable people, both men and women, to address the big problems of the future,” Wilson notes. “If we don’t have women going into engineering, we’ve lost half of the opportunities, half of the resources we have to solve problems.”
Jalife agrees. “Decisions need to be made by both. We have a long history of women not participating in very important decisions. It is time for us to become part of these decisions that will lead us to a better, more inclusive world.”