Comms Business spoke to channel experts about how their companies are championing diversity and where the industry still has work to do

The importance of diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) has increasingly become front of mind for businesses over the last decade, and rightly so. Ensuring diversity is prioritised will continue to be vital as the next generation of talent enters the workforce, bringing fresh perspectives and forward-thinking attitudes.

Put simply, businesses have no excuse not to be paying attention. With awareness raising and many companies taking proactive steps in the form of workplace strategies and industry-wide initiatives, progress is picking up pace – although perhaps not quickly enough, many Channel experts argue.

“I do think the Channel is becoming more diverse, but very slowly,” said Cherie Howlett, CMO at Jola. “There has been a focus on diversity in recent years and it was interesting to hear about initiatives being led by both large and small companies in the Channel at Channel Live last year.

“McKinsey found that organisations with ethnic, social and gender diversity were 33 per cent more likely to outperform their industry average. These companies also have lower customer churn thanks to a consistent level of excellent service and the will to go the extra mile.”

Indeed, ensuring a diverse workforce is the right thing to do and this should be reason enough to put in more effort. But the business benefits are clear too – diverse organisations are often more successful for numerous reasons.

Howlett said that the range of skills recruited, and the corporate culture seen in more diverse organisations positively affects how they do business, with an ingrained respect for others and desire to work together to achieve a common goal influencing factors such as marketing style, attitudes to onboarding and training, and after-sales service.

“Hiring people from diverse backgrounds can help to foster creativity and offer a range of perspectives and ideas,” she said.

“Employees are more likely to feel comfortable and happy in an environment where inclusivity is a priority. Equality in the workplace is important for encouraging workers from all backgrounds to feel confident in their abilities and to achieve their best.”

Redressing the gender balance

Diversity is complex and multi-faceted, and gender is just one in a range of factors that make up a diverse workforce. But historically the Channel has been known to fall short here, recognised as a traditionally male-dominated industry. This can often feel tough to overcome, Pax8’s chief people officer Chloe Cameron told Comms Business.

“I had to get over the fact that on many occasions, I was the only woman in the room,” she commented, adding that the “sad reality” is no one will hold open doors for you. “You have to open it and step through yourself. I have had some amazing mentors and role models to help me with this. I had seen women who had tackled the issue head on before and they gave me the confidence to believe in myself.”

This issue, of course, isn’t exclusive to the Channel. Deloitte’s latest Women in the Boardroom report found that just 19.7 per cent of employees on company or organisational boards are women, while McKinsey research showed that for every 100 men who are promoted from entry-level roles to manager positions, only 87 women are promoted. That figure drops to 82 per cent for women of colour. With these stats coming from 2022 research, it’s easy to feel disheartened by the lack of progress.

“As a society, we are fundamentally patriarchal, and this will always create barriers for women,” Cameron said. “The workforce is full of people who have been brought up with certain gender expectations, and who have benefitted from particular systems, and they are completely blind to privilege.

“Comparatively, there are some people who have had the deck stacked against them from day one. However, over the last few years, people have become more aware of the bigger issue.”

Things are beginning to change, she believes, pointing out that the Me Too movement has opened up a conversation around biases against women in business. Businesses in the Channel can provide mentorship and develop employee resource groups, such as to promote women in tech or drive better social impact, she added.

“These groups provide a platform that allow employees to meet role models, support each other and build informal networks.
“I would also encourage leaders to read and talk with each other for instance. Power is held at the leadership level, so organisations must demand that the group is curious, and that it educates itself about all things within the business.

“By fostering a culture of curiosity, people are more likely to be open minded about differences, and more aware of their potential blind spots.”

Equal opportunities

In prioritising diversity and inclusion, it is vital that equity isn’t left out of the picture – ensuring that every single person in the workforce has equal access to opportunities and implementing measures to ensure that any potential barriers are removed for those who may have additional needs.

“Everyone, whether they like it or not, has a degree of unconscious bias,” said Bridget Woods, principal, wholesale commercial and propositions planning at BT Wholesale.

“Only when we learn about the different aspects of our colleagues’ identities can we understand diversity at its core. By ensuring that every person has equal opportunities, organisations can start to address individual and systemic bias. This gives people the freedom to make the decisions that are best for them.”

Woods said that particularly successful initiatives at BT Wholesale have included the company’s people networks such as the gender equality, ethnicity, disability (Able2), pride and religious networks, where colleagues can share experiences.

BT also implemented “rapid action plans” to boost inclusion in ethnicity and disability, two areas where the tech industry drastically needs to improve representation, she said. These included activities like reverse mentoring, race training and partnerships with external disability groups. The company also publishes a yearly diversity and inclusion report.

“Other channel businesses also publish their D&I reports but it would be great to see the proportion of reports published increase to ensure we are all accountable and achieving our goals,” she added.

Charlotte Goodwill, CEO of the ITP said that diversity across the Channel is changing and evolving – but that there is still a long way to go, with gender and ethnicity statistics in telecoms still insufficient.

“We have a unique perspective because we work with multiple employers (large and small) across the channel to provide professional development opportunities to their employees and to assist them in recruiting the next generation through apprenticeships,” Goodwill said.

“We understand how social mobility affects our industry. Opportunities vary depending on where you grow up, your education, your family background, and the wider labour market. This should not be happening. The initiatives that have proven to be effective begin before the recruitment process begins.”

Employers successful in building diverse teams are those who examine job descriptions and requirements, she said, adding that many are looking at requirements for roles and considering transferrable skills rather than qualifications, for example.

“Even re-evaluating the language used in job titles, descriptions, and advertisements has a significant impact on expanding opportunities for all. Many are realising that you need to look beyond your CV, personality is key.”

But diversity and inclusion are not simply a tick box exercise, she emphasised, and our industry must consider more than just gender and ethnicity.

Embracing neurodiverse perspectives

Employers must consider how they can accommodate those who may be overlooked in the workforce, Goodwill told Comms Business.
“It is estimated that 15 per cent of the UK population is neurodiverse, many employers continue to miss their needs when hiring,” she said.

Goodwill added, “Surely, seeing things from a different perspective generates new ideas? Are diverse perspectives and ideas left behind when businesses hire people from similar backgrounds?

“We would like to encourage all employers to see diversity and inclusion as more than just a tick box exercise. Instead, consider providing people with an opportunity you may not have previously considered. These people could be your most valuable assets.”

Jola’s CMO Cherie Howlett agreed with this, adding that more could be done to highlight the benefits of hiring neurodivergent people and creating an environment where people feel comfortable sharing diagnoses with their employers.

“Our focus at Jola is to find the best people, who share our values and train and support them so that they grow with us,” she said. “We are problem solvers, so if we find the right person and they face a challenge, we work with them to overcome it.”

While there is no “quick fix”, she said, there is plenty that can be done to widen the talent pool and influence young people to reach their potential.

“We could go into schools and talk about the careers we can offer in IT and telecoms and get them excited about learning new skills. We can offer work experience programmes, apprenticeship schemes, mentoring schemes, re-training schemes, back-to-work schemes, graduate schemes to grow our own talent internally and offer career development and share schemes.”

Building the right networks

Chris Stening, group transformation director at CityFibre is executive sponsor of the company’s LGBTQ+ network, having helped to set it up with a team of volunteers. During his career he has built up experience in D&I networks, previously executive sponsor and founder of the O2 LGBTQIA network.

“My personal experience within CityFibre has been very positive. I feel we have the right culture to accept and welcome LGBT people,” he commented.

While the overall acceptance of lesbian and gay people in the UK has changed significantly over the last decade, he argued that transgender and bisexual people remain fairly hidden, and that work is still not complete.

“In CityFibre, we don’t have very many visible bi or trans people – although I am sure they are there – so we do tend to be quite gay centric. It doesn’t help us tackle this issue without visible role models so I’d encourage anyone interested to come forward and be that advocate if they feel comfortable to do so.

“We have a highly geographically spread workforce which can make social activities a challenge, but we try to cover as much of the UK as possible and spread out our activities. Pride is a great example as its now across multiple cities across the UK, but you also need to have some case studies of real people and advocates to encourage more people to get involved and a reason for them to attend.”

Gemma Jones, an internal recruiter at CityFibre and co-chair of the gender network echoed Stening’s views on the network provider’s conscious efforts to make a difference in the company as well as within the wider telecoms industry.

“For me personally, I think the D&I networks are essential for growth,” she said. “They have really helped to educate me and also, on a personal level, helped me improve my own skills. I’ve found particular value in recent fireside talks, blogs and awareness events.”

But more can always be done, she said, describing how the company’s networks are now looking at how efforts can be focused toward delivering CityFibre’s core D&I objectives as one cohesive team, rather than disparate or competing networks.

“I think some networks are more ahead in making waves than others and I think that’s mainly down to time and resources. Some networks have more obvious and clear goals and targets which are easily communicable through stats and awards which helps the wider company see progress.

“Some have popular and even famous events that people are often keen to get involved with such as Pride. It’s just finding the best ways to raise awareness and promote each network effectively.”

Meaningful measures

Mark Hollman, vice president of partner development and success at Colt Technology Services, said that vendors and the Channel should reflect the diverse markets in which they operate, and that the industry must work together to set a benchmark for change.

“Our CEO, Keri Gilder is Chair of TM Forum’s Diversity and Inclusion Council. Under her leadership, an industry-wide Inclusion and Diversity Score (IDS) was launched at Digital Transformation World in Copenhagen in September,” he said. “The score provides a transparent way for our industry to measure its Inclusion and Diversity performance.

“The reality is that the industry is still learning, and still has a long way to go, but powered by intentions and actions, backed up with accurate, meaningful measurement, I’m hopeful we’re moving in the right direction.”

For N-able’s CPO Kathleen Pai, the best initiatives are those that are community-based and aim to enact real change. She gave the example of N-able’s WONDER (women of N-able defining equality and respect) and PRISM (pride, resilience, inclusivity, success and mindfulness) initiatives.

“There will always be a need for work to be done as efforts to support inclusion should be ongoing,” she commented. “While a top-down strategy is crucial, where the leaders of the business are quite literally leading these initiatives, this alone won’t create an inclusive workplace culture.

“While people will appreciate their CEO living out these values, if this does not extend to the rest of the business, it won’t feel genuine. But again, continually coming back to this approach of always listening and learning – making a consistent effort to understand the many different backgrounds and experiences inside your organisation will be influential.

“That’s when effective change will happen – by making sure inclusivity is a top-down, bottom-up, and middle-out approach.”

This feature appeared in our January 2023 print issue. You can read the magazine in full here.