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Digital Inclusion

Women in Tech: Ericsson VP Eva Andrén

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Seek first to understand, then to be understood. That's the mantra that Ericsson Vice President Eva Andrén lives by, and which has helped her rise through the ranks in a traditionally male-dominated field.

Born in Sweden, she has worked for Ericsson for over 20 years and has been living in South Africa for almost four years, running Ericsson managed services for the Middle East and Africa region.

"I think my leadership style is very direct, it's very clear, it's very transparent. At the same time, I'm a very good listener," she told Connecting Africa.

She believes that gender equality in the workplace is essential, and in 2020 she was awarded the Inclusive Leader of the Year at Business Engage's Gender Mainstream Awards in South Africa.

Andrén sat down with Connecting Africa to talk about how to inspire young girls to pursue a career in ICT and gave some advice for women trying to break through the same barriers that she had to.

Paula Gilbert (PG): Am I right to say that gender equality and bringing diversity into the workspace is something that's important to you?

Eva Andrén (EA): Yes, it's extremely important to me. It's important to Ericsson as a company but for me, it's been very important because, during my career, I've felt lonely as a female.

For most of my career, I've been in very male-dominated roles, where naturally not very many females have been in the team. I started my career off in business and finance and that was an area where you see much more diversity. But it has struck me throughout my career, the question of why more women don't really go from finance into business operations, where they actually have a lot to contribute.

From my perspective, diversity always brings a different balance in the conversations, in how you approach different tasks, but also dealing with customers and suppliers.

There have not been very many female CEOs on the other side of the tables either. So, it's been very interesting to see the changes and how important it is to get more females in all different industries.

PG: Do you still see a lack of women in the pipeline in different business streams?

EA: So, you lose a lot of females in their mid-careers. You can recruit a lot of females from university to start in companies in finance or any other roles.

Then we miss a lot of females in their mid-careers when we start families, and then we lose out on our network and our positions. Then we come back and in the late career, it's very difficult to jump into the top roles.

PG: Do you think that's something that's changing? Or is it still similar to what it was like when you started at Ericsson?

EA: I think it's changing big time. If I observe globally, for example, something like television news, you see many more females presenting in different TV shows, even in sports which used to be only men. I think globally, we can see a lot of efforts from many different industries really to put females forward. So, I think every step makes a difference.

PG: I feel like we are seeing more balance in global companies, but what about in Africa? What do you observe on the continent and is it happening fast enough?

EA: It can always go faster, and I'm a strong believer that you need to start at a young age in the schools, you need to get more girls into ICT, you need to get more girls to dare to take engineering and coding. I think the coding initiative is excellent to get girls interested in tech.

I see a lot of activities happening in Africa and sub-Saharan Africa and I'm really proud to see the initiatives that are taking place. But I think the challenge is to nurture this in the mid-careers for women to stay there and to be able to develop their careers.

If I compare many of the Middle Eastern countries and Africa, I actually see more family support for females in many of the sub-Saharan African countries than I see in some of the Middle Eastern countries, due to many different reasons.

PG: What can we do to encourage young girls more? Obviously, the education industry can do a lot but how can corporates help?

EA: Corporates can do a lot to help, to make information available to support education and to support schools.

But also, for example, Ericsson has an innovation contest, where we went into schools and asked for different innovative ideas. By that, you can look specifically at how innovation can be driven by girls. And you can support and really encourage the hunger, the eagerness to be curious about it and not be scared about it.

It's also about having a critical mass. If a young girl should go into a program, you don't want her to be the only young girl in the program, you need to have a critical mass to create comfort.

You need some role models. You need to see that someone has been there before you: that there is a minister, there is a woman with a Ph.D., there is a university professor, when you see females coming up on these roles, as we see now in South Africa which I think is fantastic, that creates a big movement.

PG: So in terms of getting girls involved at an early age, what do you think are the important skills that they need to learn and when should we start?

EA: I think we should start very early, even when you're seven years old, to play around with it. It comes down to what games you play on your computer, your iPad, how do you get the girls interested in mathematics.

Mathematics is very important to start a common understanding and to get girls to play around with it. To help them find out how this can be something that is thrilling, interesting, getting them energized. Make it fun. I think they need to find out what is fun about that.

When I was a young girl, mathematics was very interesting for me and I think I found my own way around it. But as I said, if you're too small of a critical mass, you grow up to become a female male.

I've seen my own behavior, many times I adjust my way of speaking, acting, dressing, behaving, to fit into the male culture. It might not always be wrong; it might have been the only way to navigate for me. But don't forget who you are and don't forget your own personality skills. Because this is really what is flavoring the conversations and driving innovation.

It's also not always just a male or female issue, because there are different cultures as well. But if there are nine men out of 10 in a group of people, of course, the conversations and the way that you speak will be very male-dominated. That's why you need to find a balance because without the balance you will never make a big change.

PG: So, what do you think are the key things that we need to do to speed up gender inclusion on the continent?

EA: I think one of the areas is actually to get companies to have more graduate programs, I think they are fantastic. When you get the opportunities for females, as well as males, to work together in a graduate program.

That company might not be able to employ you, but if you have a 12-month internship, you have a higher likeliness to get yourself a job somewhere else. You get more people that have seen you in operation, that have seen you perform and that can recommend you.

I think, graduate programs in combination with expanding networks for females. That is the biggest difference between males and females, males usually have a bigger network, and they have someone who recommends them to someone.

This is what females need to work much more on and to dare to shine and dare to present what they have done to others. So that I can talk about you in front of someone who will be your potential next employer.

PG: Is there any specific advice that someone gave you along the way that really stuck with you and helped you on your journey?

EA: A lot of advice but one that stuck out was to prioritize the conversations and social networking. Don't be the woman who is always providing perfect outcomes, but you just sit on your own and produce. Make sure that you take the time to socialize, discuss, reflect and create your network.

So, if you are traveling in the evenings, don't go back to your room and start finishing off all your emails. Dare to socialize with the men and the other women and create your network and get other people to understand how you make an impact.

Because if you only deliver, then you will never reach the top because you will not be seen for what you can really do overall. It's so important to be part of discussions with others, both men and women, to broaden your own mindset and context.

That's my advice to all the females. Don't go back home and finish your delivery task. Create room and time for discussions, reflections and conversations. Because otherwise, you will never be better than yourself.

But if you create time to meet others, you will generate new ideas, innovations and inflections that will grow you and grow your mindset.

PG: I think balance is something we talk about a lot, so coming from a country where gender equality is so innate in society how have you balanced home life and work throughout your career?

EA: I think balance is something that each and every individual needs to define for themselves. What does balance mean for you and for me? I think I've had good balance from my perspective.

I worked a lot. I've had work weeks with 60 to 80 hours, but I always made room for my own exercise. So, for me exercising has been extremely important. I go running, I go cycling, I go out in nature. That's how I reenergize.

I always made time for that, even if it was transporting myself from home to my office. But then I had to sacrifice other things like time with friends and additional activities that other people might do in their spare time.

If someone else would look at that time they will probably not think that it was a balance in life. That is why I say every person needs to identify what balance means for you and then you need to think about what's important for you to get that balance.

For me, it means today I need to have at least one hour of "me time" exercising or going out into nature. Then I put the rest of my time into work – and I love my work – and I spend time with family. Maybe I do not spend as much time with friends and other hobbies. But that's what I have sacrificed; and if you want to reach a career, you need to sacrifice something.

PG: What do you think is your leadership style? And what kind of advice would you give to other women and young girls?

EA: I think my leadership style is very direct, it's very clear, it's very transparent. At the same time, I'm a very good listener and I have this mantra: "seek first to understand, then to be understood." That has helped me a lot because I listen well, when it comes to my peers, my superiors or my direct reports.

Once I've understood then it's easier for me to explain my point of view or to take the conversation forward to a solution. I think that's something that many females actually struggled with, we usually use too many words, and then they may lose us after some time because we talk too much and they don't understand us. If we can pick up what they say first and then build on that, it helps a lot in the conversation and the discussions.

PG: Do you think that the barriers that you faced are the same ones that women are facing today? Or are they facing different issues?

EA: I think the barriers are becoming different because when I came up into the industry, it was not digital, everything was based on physical meetings and I traveled a lot to meet people. I think now the barriers will go down.

There's a lot of people whose capabilities will come across much better while working remotely. You can use the digital platforms both to work within your field, but you can reach out to a much, much larger audience.

I think this creates a fantastic opportunity for women, if you can avoid traveling back and forth to the office, if you need to multitask with taking care of your family and your households, that gives you an opportunity. At the same time, it can put more pressure on you, but those challenges existed before.

So, I think actually, the digital remote possibilities work creates a better opportunity. Sometimes it might also benefit females that there are not that many face-to-face social activities, because then you don't stick out as different.

PG: We are still living in this weird time and the last year was so difficult for many, so how has COVID-19 impacted your work and the work of your team and what you're seeing in the industry in general?

EA: I think the telecom industry and what we are providing has really been positive in the COVID period as we all need to stay more connected.

But it's also put a strain on our company as we have not traveled, we have not gone to offices. We very quickly put in standards for health and safety because safety for our employees is most important. Working from home really developed well, but it took some time.

I think the biggest change for me was actually that we became very, very human. It became very natural to reach out, have check-in meetings asking about how do you feel? How are you today? How is your family? While when we went to the office and traveled to customer meetings, we rarely talked about that and people didn't feel well those days either but now we are more sensitive and it means more to us because everyone is on their own in their homes.

So, I think it has brought humaneness and understanding of the whole individual. Talking again about the balance of life, everyone says they work a lot now, but I think we know much more about each other and we care much more.

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*Top image is of Eva Andrén, VP and Head of Managed Services at Ericsson Middle East and Africa. (Source: Ericsson).

— Paula Gilbert, Editor, Connecting Africa

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