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Lessons Learned: How I Navigated the Telco Industry as a Woman

Estimated Reading Time: 7 Minutes

I was there at the beginning of the liberalization of telecoms in the UK, back in the mid-90s: A lone woman in a world of men. I got one of the first simple international resale licenses, set up my first company, and became its managing director. Those were hectic and exciting times, and it could be rough. A lot has changed since then. I’ve recently come to realize what it was that got me through those arduous years and helped me to get to where I am today with ECT, a company that I co-founded with my brother, Marshall Kavesh. I want to share that realization with you.

Uncharted territory

The first thing that has to be said is that, back when telecoms was starting to become liberalized in the UK (1995), there were practically no women in tech. At least that was what it felt like. It was probably true of every industry, but telecoms was not typically an attractive industry for women, or one of the most obvious places for them to make the best of their careers. This was due to a great reluctance from the establishment to welcome gender diversity or take the words of women seriously, especially on business and technical matters. I remember a firmly embedded culture of machismo based around the holy trinity of football, rugby, and beer; if you couldn’t contribute to one of those points, you were likely to fall by the wayside, regardless of whether or not you were a hardworking woman. It was truly a man’s world.

Of course, I am sure there were plenty of men who had nothing to contribute to this culture either, but the point is that it was much easier for them to at least pretend like they did. It was hard at times, but it never got me down so much as it frustrated me. It’s never easy not to be taken seriously, especially when it leads to “special treatment”: Men sometimes expected a little something extra in return for their business. The #MeToo movement shows that, as a society, we’re nowhere near out of the woods on this yet, but the culture that enables that type of behavior is starting to retreat.

The world is now set up differently than it was back then and I was often forced to make difficult choices. I can’t say that I always got them right.

Just the same as them

All this meant that I had a job to do. And I had to be twice as good at it as everybody else; I needed to have all the answers, and always be one step ahead of myself and those who wanted to watch me fail. Most of all, I learned to respond to boorishness with professionalism: After all, it was me who made the first ECT sale! I have been the managing director of ECT’s subsidiary based in the UK, and responsible for sales there, Ireland and Southern Europe, for the last 18 years; I have been a vital part of our growth and success. I would therefore argue it has been a successful strategy! When I reflect on what it was that allowed me to thrive in the environment I have described above, I realize that it was all about my training… but it’s not the sort of training you might expect. I am talking about my four brothers!

Growing up with four boys in such a rough-and-tumble home got me used to dealing with male company at an early age. Playing and developing with my brothers, I learned that I had to stand up for myself, and that I could be just like the rest of them, even if I seemed different. But the most important thing it taught me, and this has always stuck with me, is that I was never less for having been a girl, and it means that I am not less now simply because I am a woman: I was just the same as them. Understanding that I was no different is what truly served me well as a working woman: I was able to step seamlessly out of one male-dominated environment and into another.

According to the last industry study, done back in 2015 by GSMA, less than 40% of the colleagues at three quarters of the companies surveyed were women, with the figure varying wildly between ten and 52 percent from region to region. Although this is in line with the gender demographic of tech companies in general, it is nevertheless surprising, given that organizations actively seeking diversity tend to fare better than their less diverse competitors. The same report tells us that “companies that are gender-diverse and utilize female talent effectively are 45% more likely to report improved market share.” That’s why at ECT we are doing our utmost to attract more women to our company: We just appointed a new female Scrum Master for one of our teams, and our innovation team is actually majority female. That’s because we understand what diversity brings to a company like ours, and how that benefits both our male and our female colleagues.

But the most important thing it taught me, and this has always stuck with me, is that I was never less for having been a girl, and it means that I am not less now simply because I am a woman: I was just the same as them.

More for mothers

What I wasn’t prepared for was being a working mom. I am a proud mom of three and, now that they’re all successful adults, I can look at them and be proud of what I achieved as a mother. But it wasn’t always easy. The world is now set up differently than it was back then and I was often forced to make difficult choices. I can’t say that I always got them right.

Every parent has a story like this, I’m sure, but there’s one example that sticks in my mind: I’d been planning a vacation with the kids and they were all very excited, as they were at a young age. They’d each been given a different part to plan, which made the whole thing even more exciting but, ultimately, a lot worse in the end. I got the call at the 11th hour to head off to Milan for business reasons, and the whole thing was put on ice. I often find myself wishing these days that I’d just decided to take the holiday instead: We cannot get those moments back once they’re gone and, as important as work always feels in the here and now, that’s not what we tend to remember further down the line.

It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of diversity to ECT, and it was intended to be that way from the outset. Different cultures manage the burden of childcare and family responsibility in a variety of different ways, so our priority as a company is to be as flexible as possible. That’s why we use a liberal flexi-time policy that allows our colleagues to be there for their children at key times. Mom and dad can work as a team and be there for their children when they are needed: Getting the kids ready for school, the school run and collection at the end of the day. Our colleagues actually get to take this flexibility home with them. We’ve come a long way since these things were considered to be wholly the woman’s responsibility. Our hope is that those benefits will help ECT to stand out as an attractive option to women looking to make something of themselves in our industry.

I think the goal of society should be to collectively reduce to a negligible level the number of difficult choices that working mothers need to make. Recently I read an interview with Sydney Leroux, forward for Orlando Pride and the US Women’s National Soccer Team. “Too often we see women having to make a choice between motherhood and their career,” she said, after revealing that she spent more money on childcare than she made as a soccer player last year. That’s pretty staggering, considering that she is a World Cup winner. Would the players of the US men’s team put up with similar circumstances? I think we all know the answer to that one. I have learned a lot through the years, and I’ve lived through many of the changes that we now take for granted. But we can always do more, and we must. I want as many women as possible to come and do their best work at ECT!

Francine Kavesh