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Women In the Channel: Sales, Technology & Leadership

As a woman, I am not sure if I am more or less qualified to author an article on Women in the Channel. But perhaps that is the point. I am likely no more or less qualified than is a man; simply my perspective and approach to the issue likely is different than is a man’s. When that difference is not predetermined to be better or worse, then we may no longer have need to consider the question, or authoring articles such as this for that matter. For now, however, there is still cause to consider the status of women in relation to that of men in almost every area of the world and every aspect of society, including the telecom channel.

Over the last several months, in preparation for the inaugural Women in the Channel Workshop at the Spring 2011 Channel Partners Conference & Expo, I have noticed an increasing attention to women’s issues from the provocatively titled Atlantic Monthly article “The End of Men” to the recast Newsweek-Daily Beast premiere issue featuring Hilary Clinton and 150 other “Women of the World” to the United Nation’s 56th Commission on the Status of Women to the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. I am not sure if the momentum is real, or if I simply am taking greater notice. Either way, I am at attention. Perhaps this special report will do the same for you.

The focus on women in telecom and technology is a function of their rarity, particularly in leadership roles. A visual survey of any executive conference table will confirm that it’s well below half even though the U.S. Department of Labor shows 47 percent of the total labor force in 2010 was composed of women.

“I still find myself too often the only woman in the board room,” said Jan Sarro, executive vice president of corporate services for Fusion Telecommunications International Inc. Indeed, lack of female peers and mentors was reported frequently as an occupational hazard for women that Channel Partners spoke to for this report. For some women being a novelty was an advantage in technology sales, but lonely nonetheless.

Perhaps that is why there is no shortage of groups for women in technology fields. Here are a few: Women in Technology International, Alliance of Technology and Women, National Center for Women & Information Technology, Women in Telecom, Women in Cable Telecommunications, etc. Their aims generally are two-fold: Support women already in the field and encourage young women to follow suit.

But what about the technology channel? This is an area that is as much about sales as it is about technology. There is an established group here as well. It’s called Women in Channels and was started in May 2007 to promote the advancement of women in IT channels. While kindred spirits, the gals in the telecom channel are just beginning to organize something of their own. Presently it’s an adhoc group that is running on the energy of volunteers; its most vocal champion and unofficial leader is Nancy Ridge, vice president of sales for master agency Telcombrokers Inc., who tapped Channel Partners to help orchestrate the spring workshop. Energized by the event, which drew more than 100 people, women in the telecom channel are signing on to donate services (PGi has provided conference bridging, for example) and to organize or attend virtual meetings on professional development topics.

Status of Women in the Channel

In compiling this special report, Senior Editor Kelly Teal and I questioned women and men about “the climate for women in the telecom channel today.” The discomfort in addressing the issue head-on was apparent; it was as if talking about the lower profile of women was an implied indictment of men. Only a few respondents directly acknowledged the lopsided ratio of men to women in leadership roles; instead most expressed optimism about women’s progress and potential here.

“True there are more men in leadership and executive positions, but women are coming on strong and becoming more visible,” said Lauren Shapiro, vice president of operators for master agency PlanetOne Communications. “We’ve learned to speak up, speak out and make our voice heard. The best news? Men are actually listening and recognizing our workplace value.”

One of the telecom CEOs we queried cited his own company as an example of progress. Rolla Huff, chairman and CEO of EarthLink Inc., reported that his company has three senior women on its executive team, two women in its board and several others in key leadership roles, such as integration and corporate planning, customer care, IT, finance and sales, as well as its agent channel.

Similarly, Mike Robinson, CEO of Broadview Networks, also said women have had major roles in his company’s success. “Broadview has embraced a diverse workforce within our channel sales environment and throughout the organization,” Robinson said. “But the time is now for the wider industry to really capitalize on diversity at all levels.”

The D word”  an oft-used euphemism for employing minorities such as women  was trotted out by several respondents. But, in this context, it was positioned as a necessary component for continued competitiveness in the marketplace as opposed to an affirmative action.

“The competitive and technological pressures we face in the telecommunications industry truly do create opportunities to bring diverse points of view to the table,” said Windstream President and CEO Jeff Gardner.

Gardner argued that this diversity extends beyond the workforce to the individual worker. “It’s important for everyone, men as well as women, to look outside their traditional job roles and embrace the kinds of cross-functional training and experience that produce well-rounded individuals.”

Turned around, this suggests that just as business women have had to develop their masculine traits (e.g., being task-oriented and decisive), business men need to work on their feminine traits (e.g. being people-oriented and collaborative).

Indeed, many of the challenges IT/telecom convergence and cloud delivery models faced by the telecom industry and the channel were cited frequently as being well met by women’s natural skills. “Women like to find solutions and collaborate with others,” said Karin Fields, owner of master agency MicroCorp Inc. “Our industry is changing. We aren’t going to be selling just plain pipes in the future; we are going to be selling solutions. Women will be able to thrive in this environment.”

Next Steps for Empowering Women in the Channel

Empowering women in the channel requires both a corporate and individual effort.

At the corporate level, Robinson’s plan is simple: “The easy answer is for telecom and IT companies of all stripes to embracing hiring more women to improve the gender balance in the channel.”

But his plan does recognize that there is deficit in the pool of applicants and Robinson said companies need to highlight the successes of women in the channel to attract more women to the industry. “By shining a light on those who are already successful, we can start to demonstrate that this field offers excellent potential for financial and professional growth,” he said.

From a more practical viewpoint, Fusion’s Sarro suggested companies reach out to the educational community to organize scholarship and mentoring programs.

Similarly, EarthLink’s Huff said attracting talent requires companies to embrace family-friendly policies like flexible work schedules, telecommuting and job sharing.

Once recruited, the work must continue with intention, Sarro warned. “We need to seek out the most promising, eager and committed women in our organizations and offer our guidance and support in meaningful and consistent ways to encourage their development and enable their advancement and success,” she said.

As one example, MicroCorp’s Fields said carriers could encourage women to become sales engineers and begin grooming them for C-level posts.

On an individual level, women need to advocate for their own success. “I also see that it’s important for me to speak up on my own behalf, to ask for the change I want in my career, to ask for help and support from my manager, my carrier partners and the other women in the channel,” said Telcombroker’s Ridge, outlining steps that for many women are challenging.

And, women need to bring their sisters along with them. “Women need to be more vocal about being an important part of the channel and encourage other women to participate in events like Women in the Channel,” said Fields.

Additional reporting by Kelly Teal.


Looking for More?

Download a PDF of the Special Report on Women in the Channel from the Resource Center at www.channelpartnersonline.com/reports.


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