What Mobile World Congress Showed Me about Sexism in the Communications Sector

There are not many days when I will have three separate one-on-one meetings with intelligent women who I admire, where each of the women comes from a vastly different country and culture. I had that rare pleasure on Wednesday last week, whilst at MWC Barcelona, the big trade convention organized by the GSMA. Each of the women works in a different field, but they have something in common. Without any prompting from me, they all volunteered remarkably similar stories about being disrespected by their male peers. That is a coincidence I find impossible to ignore, because it signifies more than bad luck. It demonstrated that repugnant male attitudes are not limited to particular places or particular areas of expertise, but must pervade the global communications industry.

I will not name the women or share the specifics of their stories. Commsrisk writes about professional matters, and identifying those women in this article would further shift the focus away from their many talents and accomplishments as professionals. The quality of a person’s work should be appraised without squandering a single thought on the gender of the worker. Most men are evaluated without any thought to their status as males. Earlier in the week I had already amused myself by observing the tedious uniformity of the males lining up to enter MWC. Who decreed that many thousands of men must all wear dark two-piece business suits, all wear light-colored shirts without ties, and that each must have their top button undone? The vast majority would have flown to Barcelona but jackets are impractical to pack into carry-on cases and ugly when crumpled.

Men wear this garb because they lack imagination or they are too scared to reject the conformity imposed by other men. There is safety in conformity. It reduces the chances of receiving criticism unrelated to the quality of work. But a lack of imagination and a fear of rejection are both undesirable attributes for people who claim to be leading us toward a brighter tomorrow. Perhaps the expectation of needless conformity is also the root of our prejudice against women in the communications sector. Women may seek to behave like men, but they will never look or be entirely the same.

Quotas should not be used to appoint more women to positions of responsibility. If appointments are not made on merit then inferior women will be selected ahead of superior women, and not just ahead of superior men. Quotas should not be necessary either, because I cannot be alone in observing the mediocrity of so many who participated in this year’s MWC. The formal agenda could easily have substituted the majority of speakers with a series of ChatGPT bots trained to repeat fashionable platitudes that masquerade as thought leadership. These include the platitudes about diversity. I do not need my consciousness to be raised to identify or empathize with obvious inequity. Some more plain-speaking criticism of the organizations that obviously fail women will accomplish more than a continuous stream of vague pledges to do better.

There are so few business leaders who offer real leadership that secretly replacing the majority with algorithms would have no discernible impact on stock markets. These so-called leaders are conformists too. It is no accident that the most quoted leader in the history of information technology, Steve Jobs, built an enormously successful business around the concept of ‘think different’. But if we are so blind that we cannot sideline the most mediocre men then we should still have eyes to see the most obvious prejudices on display. One example would be the vast hall occupied by Huawei, where the string of entry gates were staffed solely by women. If huge businesses find it so difficult to promote capable women into positions of leadership, why bother compensating other women by allocating them servile tasks, unless the goal is an even more sinister exploitation of their sex?

One of the four rotating Chairpersons on the Board of Huawei is a woman, Meng Wanzhou, though she got the job because she is the boss’ daughter. Expecting equality for women to be delivered through blatant nepotism is like expecting the GSMA to deliver equality by shaming one of their biggest sponsors: no amount of wishful thinking will make it happen in practice. The mediocrity and mendacity of much of the comms industry is illustrated by Meng’s corporate biography, which implies she knows everything about Huawei’s finances, though her lawyers insisted she knows nothing about lying to banks about busting sanctions in Iran.

Since 2003, Ms. Meng has led the establishment of Huawei’s globally unified finance organizational structure, processes, regulations, and IT platforms. From 2007 to 2014, Ms. Meng implemented the Integrated Financial Services (IFS) Transformation Program across the company around the world, making fine-grained management part of Huawei’s DNA for sustainable growth.

Note the lack of irony when referring to the company’s DNA. The next generation of corporate executives should not be bred like champion racehorses. The genetic favoritism that secured a top job for this woman illustrates why arbitrary gender quotas will not lead to the promotion of women based on their merits. Arbitrary quotas encourage yet more arbitrary choices. The best women should be promoted because they are good at their jobs, not because they are women.

That Huawei apes the hollow diversity promises of the rest of this industry should be especially objectionable. Most of the world knows Huawei is ultimately controlled by communists, and that communists are supposed to treat women as equal to men, though the Chinese Communist Party has never allowed ideological principle to interfere with the selfish interests of the men who dominate it. Meanwhile, Huawei insists they are a normal profit-hungry business like most others. If so, then can they explain the free market logic which dictates only women of a certain age and appearance are suited to passively lining the rooms where they flog their tech?

Things have improved gradually. I can recall a time when scantily-clad Russian women danced across the platform of some otherwise forgettable vendor of business support systems. Even then it should have been apparent that the exploitation of a pretty face deserves to be treated like a warning flag. I do not want to be an investor in a company that is run using software that was purchased because a middle-aged man got an erection at a trade fair.

I am a man, and I will never know what it is like to walk in a woman’s shoes. Each man must decide who he will be, each woman faces the same choice. None of us dictate our circumstances; we can only make the best of what we are and what we have. If you are not yet the best version of yourself then you may be trying to conform with expectations you should not. Or you may just be a dull greedy sociopath. If you are a sociopath, then try to pay attention to society’s expectations, and mirror the behaviors that the rest of us consider normal, because your judgment is flawed and cannot be trusted. If you are not a sociopath, you should trust your own judgment and defy all expectations but your own. Being your best cannot involve appeasing the superficial prejudices of others.

The three women who are the subject of this story command my respect because they are good at their jobs. They tackle those jobs with an unusual vigor because they have successfully turned their work into an extension of their strengths as human beings. I would be proud to swap my résumé for any one of theirs; each has made an admirable contribution to the communications industry. Gender should not matter. There should be no reason to write this article. And if you disagree, then perhaps you are one of those mediocre men who deserves to be replaced by a sexless ChatGPT bot at the earliest opportunity.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.