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Where the Girls Are

A few short decades ago, women were barely visible in the structured cabling and telecommunications arena. Today, the industry is drawing females -- from installers to engineers to executives -- in growing numbers. But just how much have times (and attitudes) changed?

September 1, 2000  

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While digging trenches in -40C weather may not appeal to every woman’s sense of adventure, it appealed to Teresa MacDougall.

MacDougall, an installer/tester with Guild Electric Ltd. in Toronto, got her first job in the industry 12 years ago installing fiber optics along the Trans Canada pipeline. It involved braving extreme weather conditions, travelling by snowmobile on old lumber access roads and countless hours of digging in the snow.

“This guy was hiring a woman as a joke. He figured he would see me back in a week,” says MacDougall. “He didn’t know how tough I was. I ended up staying for six months. It was excellent.”

She says the only hurdle she encountered was one man on the job who had a problem with her. “He’d say ‘I’m not working with some bleepty bleep woman’ she recalls. “I established my credibility over a game of pool. But also because I could do the job, which was a big shock even to myself.”

I have worked harder than some men, because not only did I have to prove that I was [competent], I had to prove I was better than they were. I figured being the same wouldn’t make me stand out. I didn’t want to stand out because I was a woman, I really wanted to excel.”

While the installation side of the structured cabling and telecommunications arena may not attract many women, that may be poised to change, as women continue to enter the industry in growing numbers.

Twenty years ago, when the industry was in its infancy, women were barely visible. Today, while it is still a male-dominated business, and while there is a greater concentration of women in marketing, sales and administrative roles, women can also be found in virtually every other area — from the production floor to the engineering department to the offices of senior management.

“Telecommunications in the last ten years has pretty much redefined itself. It is not embedded with old business models and fixed business practices,” says Valerie Rybinski, a senior electrical engineer with the Siemon Company, Watertown, CT. “Most of the people in my firm are 45 and younger. These men went to school with female engineers and respect them as equals.”

Is structured cabling the land of opportunity? Rybinski thinks so. “In general the industry offers better opportunities for any engineer. In our engineering department of about 30, five are women and that is five times more women than 10 years ago,” says Rybinksi, who started out in this businesses on the assembly room floor. “It’s hard work and fast paced, but you can do anything — design product, develop standards, any aspect of the business — there are tons of opportunities.”

MacDougall agrees. “I have been given a fair amount of responsibility, opportunities and professional development,” she says. “The industry is growing. It has tripled in size even over two years ago. Everybody at some level in business is involved in telecommunications.”


So why aren’t there more women in the industry? What is holding them back? According an online membership survey by the Chicago, Illinois-based Women in Cable & Telecommunication (WICT), the single biggest obstacle women in the telecommunications industry face is the lack of access to high visibility projects and professional development, followed by discrimination in hiring practices.

But several women who spoke to Cabling Systems disagreed. “I haven’t seen it [discrimination] in this industry,” says Rybinski. “Throughout all the work I have done in the Standards Committees for the last seven years working with 50 to 100 industry experts, the top engineers in the field, never once did I get the inkling that I wouldn’t be taken seriously,” she says.

Julie Roy, 30, an IBDN Systems and Application Specialist with NORDX/CDT in Pointe-Claire, PQ believes the industry offers the same opportunities for women as for men, but that it is an industry that women are just not considering.

“My dad worked for Bell for 30 years, so I knew telecommunications existed,” says Roy, one of only two women in Canada to obtain their RCDD/LAN Specialist designation. “If you don’t know about it, obviously, the interest won’t be there.”

But once in the know, this industry is one of the best places for women to prosper — at least according to Phyllis Galbraith of Anixter Canada, Mississauga, ON. “Communications is the best industry for women because it is not gender biased,” says Galbraith. “If you have ability and drive you will succeed.”

Galbraith, who manages Global/Major Accounts and ACE with the company, entered the field 17 years ago. She was in her 40s, a grandmother, had no sales experience in the industry and knew nothing about the product she had to sell.

“My mentor was a 28-year old man,” she says. “In sales it didn’t matter, it was fun. The atmosphere was electric. When I started there were few women if any women in CATV. Right now 23 per cent of all women employed world-wide at Anixter are in senior management positions. Not bad for a company that when I started probably had less than five per cent. The potential for career growth is phenomenal. You can go right to the top in this business.”


Both Rybinski and Galbraith believe women’s communication style may be a competitive advantage in this business.

No one proves their point better than Ginny Dybenko. Dybenko is VP Interactive Television with Bell Actimedia in Toronto. Her career spans almost 30 years including senior management positions in IS/IT, networking, communications, Internet development and service.

In early 1980s, as president of Bell Advanced Communications, Dybenko introduced a collaborative management model to the new division. The approach seemed almost revolutionary at the time, but it was phenomenally successful, eventually being adopted throughout the company.

“It was a new and developing field, moving from voice analogue into the digital arena. Many companies were growing in that area and the competition was huge,” says Dybenko. “At that time, any big company that had engineers tended to be very hierarchical. I had little in the way of role models. I had seen men in management that were power hungry, self-serving and totally insensitive to the requirements of their people and I knew I didn’t want that.

Our challenge was to educate these guys to get up to date on the technology at the same time as creating a business environment they would want to stay in.”

Dybenko says her experience being a mom informs her approach. “Listening to people, putting their needs first is exactly what the high tech field needs. As manager it is not the job to boss people around, but to create an environment that allows knowledge workers to do what they do as efficiently as possible. Women tend to listen more and be more communal in devising strategies.”

Fanny Mlinarsky, General Manager of WireScope Operations at Agilent Technologies in Marlborough, MA and a 17-year industry veteran, says “the way women discuss things is different. We can bring different approach to systems.”

In addition, she says a good deal depends on the actual client, noting that some are more “receptive” than others. She says she has been in situations in which managers didn’t feel “as comfortable with a woman. Men feel more comfortable with men. It would be obvious that they are more comfortable dealing with men, but it never blocked me from participating. I don’t think because I am a woman I will have it easier or harder. I go into a room on the same level as everyone else.”


So is everyone on a level playing field? Is it just as easy for women to climb the corporate ladder as it is for their male counterparts?

“I have heard some women say it is all about attitude,” says Carol Stephenson, president and CEO of Lucent Technologies Canada Corp. in Markham, ON. “I’ve seen enough in my 25-year career in telecommunications to say that a ceiling exists. The higher you get the more power you have. Frankly no one will be threatened in the early stages [of your career]. When I got to the VP level, things got a lo
t subtler. All of sudden you’re a threat. There are still barriers. It is important to identify them and to keep addressing them.”

Stephenson attributes her success to her leadership style. “I would say it is more the how I led people and motivated people, than being a woman. That being said, at the risk of over-generalizing, women do tend to be more collaborative. Women tend to listen more, they are more comfortable admitting they don’t know something and asking questions and are inclusive in teams and discussion. They also positively reward people who do a good job.”

While Dybenko and Stephenson agree that the unique communication and management style women bring is a competitive advantage, both say it does not guarantee them offices in the executive suite.

Dybenko says being a woman differentiates you from the pack, and if you are competent, you will probably rise especially at lower levels. “That works to just below the director level and then comes to a screeching halt. The higher you get, the more risk the company takes in making the promotion, and people tend to promote in their own image,” she says. “Obviously not every person gets to be a vice-president. Yet women tend to do well to a certain level and hit a glass ceiling, while many others go on to senior vice president.”

She says the characteristics that many women bring — collaboration, communication, creativity, innovation — are not as highly valued at very senior levels where firms are more likely to want someone who sees things in black and white. “A lot of pioneers end up with arrows in their back. It is not typically those who innovate and change who get promoted.”


That may be a trend that is beginning to change. Women in the industry point to leaders such as Lucent’s Stephenson or Carly Fiorina, president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard. According to the American Management Association’s 1998 study Senior Management: Teams Profiles and Performance, promoting women may just be good business. From 1996 to 1997, in firms where women represented a majority of senior management, sales increased by an average of 22.9 per cent, while firms with all male senior management showed only a 12.7 per cent growth.

“Women make or influence over 80 per cent of purchase decisions,” says Dybenko. “So it makes all the sense in the world [to hire women]. In the car industry they realized that about 10 years ago, and now you see a lot of women executives in the car industry.” While she says the large consumer product market is more sensitive to needs of women, there are positive sign in high tech field too. For instance, she notes that more women than men are becoming Internet users and that they surf the web in very different ways.

“As companies begin to push e-commerce solutions they will be marketing to women in the expectation that they will make the great majority of purchases. Women will be heavily involved in the development [of e-commerce] as a result.”

And hiring women into the business mix is crucial for other reasons. “If you have like-minded people, you’ll have the same ideas,” says Stephenson. “In diverse teams you have more ideas generated and that will lead to greater profitability. It is not about charity, it is about good business.”

My concern is the pace of change. It should be much faster, given the qualified women and opportunities out there. There are not enough women at the executive levels. A recent study looked at women executives in the top 500 companies in Canada and the numbers were abysmal. There are ten of us [women] who lead Canadian subsidiaries of multinational companies. That’s not a lot considering the number of companies out there.”


So how can the industry attract more women? Especially when you consider that less than one-quarter of computer science and mathematics degrees are awarded to women from universities and colleges. While this is not a new trend, competition for qualified staff in technology industries makes it one that many are trying to address.

Stephenson says we need to start early, with young children, train school guidance counsellors to talk to young women about careers in technology and to provide role models. “Corporations also have to make a concerted effort to look at all their talent when making promotions, to ensure they are not unconsciously excluding people,” she says.

Dybenko agrees. “It has been proven that mentoring is the single most effective method of advancing women. I spend a lot of time talking to young girls and women about studying math and science.”

And these types of efforts — from mentoring to training to counselling — ultimately do have an effect. Notes Dybenko: “When I used to do the seminar [on high tech careers] I would get almost nobody, just the overflow from the career in veterinary medicine. Now there are line-ups out the door.”CS

Christine Campbell is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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