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Navigating the telecoms industry as a woman: from entry level to executive

Telecoms tower with aerials

ARTICLE SUMMARY

Telecoms has long been a male-dominated industry. Despite efforts from Ofcom to attract more women into technology roles, retention across the wider tech sector still proves an issue, with 56 per cent of women leaving the field between ten and 20 years into their careers. Here, Deb Gilday, head of design at fibre network operator MS3 Networks, offers advice to women looking to enter and progress within technical telecoms roles.

Motivated by working in challenging environments, Deb Gilday has over eight years of experience in surveying, planning and designing telecoms infrastructure builds.

With an academic background in architecture and design, Deb joined MS3 in 2022 before beginning her current role as head of design in October 2023.

Have the confidence to speak up

Regardless of career stage, the most important piece of advice I would give to women is to make sure you can make your voice heard.  

Respectfully voicing my opinion has served me throughout my telecoms career, from the moment I entered the sector in 2015. Having returned to the UK after living abroad, I started working on-site in Wales in an entry-level pole surveyor role. While I had some experience in design thanks to my interior architecture and design degree, the telecoms sector was new to me.

Although the male-dominated nature of telecoms can make women apprehensive to share their opinions, I always made sure to ‘do my homework’, by researching facts and figures to support my point of view. This not only made me more confident in voicing opinions, but it also helped my views to be considered and respected.

Likewise, in my current head of design role, being ready to share my opinion means coming to meetings prepared with what needs to be discussed, followed up and actioned. I am lucky that MS3 doesn’t have the ‘boys’ club culture’ that sometimes prevails within telecoms, but instead values everyone as an individual and listens to their ideas.

If you are a woman looking to step up the ladder into more senior roles but don’t yet feel confident in expressing your opinion, I would suggest undertaking training on speaking in front of others.

Push yourself out of your comfort zone  

Taking on new roles and responsibilities outside of your comfort zone is especially useful if you’re looking to progress into a management position. After working as a telecom surveyor for over six years across two different companies, I had the chance to move horizontally again, but chose to apply for a planning role.

Although the move was daunting, I have always tried to move out of my personal comfort zone wherever possible, which has prepared me to do the same in my career. After studying for a degree in the US for a couple of years, I made the decision to complete my studies at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland. When I began, I had a very basic understanding of Italian, but by the end of my degree, I was able to attend classes and carry out presentations in the language.

Passing my degree in my second language not only improved my ability to speak in front of others, but also gave me the confidence to turn down the more conventional route in favour of a challenge.

Coding will help you stand out

Having worked in telecoms for almost a decade, the industry landscape has changed significantly since I began my first surveying role.  

The Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software we use to plan builds has become increasingly enabled by artificial intelligence (AI), allowing us to generate designs even more quickly and cost-effectively.

While these design tools don’t eliminate the need for the planning expertise I have built up throughout my career, the nature of my role means I often have to consult colleagues with coding skills for assistance on designs.

As AI-supported software becomes even more widespread, having the ability to code will set you apart from other candidates when looking for your first role within telecoms design.  

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Qualifications are good, but experience is better

My current role is a mix of office and home-based working with some site visits, and involves managing a planning team, quality controlling designs and working out build costings. Although this role differs quite a bit from the on-site surveying roles I undertook earlier in my career, working in that role for five years gave me the fundamentals to perform well as head of design.  

When I started working in telecoms, few people actively sought out a role in the field, with many falling into it from different academic and technical backgrounds. However, with the aim to deliver gigabit broadband nationwide by 2030, the sector is beginning to attract more applicants.

It is encouraging to see the growth of the industry, especially for alt-net operators building their own telecom networks to provide more consumer choice.

However, for women looking to enter the industry now, I would stress the importance of gaining on-site experience before entering more senior roles. Although the Openreach Physical Infrastructure Access (PIA) courses provide a good introduction to deploying broadband infrastructure, there is no replacement for experience in the field.  

Whether you’ve yet to get your foot in the door in telecoms or you’re looking to move into senior leadership, you should keep in mind the skills and qualities that will help you progress. Women entering the sector face many challenges, but upskilling and pushing yourself to approach problems confidently will go a long way in having a successful telecoms career.

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