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Telenor cites gender as a business priority in Pakistan © SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Based on its European operations, Norway’s Telenor tops the FT-Statista ranking for diversity in the continent’s telecoms sector, and is ninth in the overall list. But the group takes its approach considerably further afield.

In Pakistan — where the female workforce participation rate is one of the world’s lowest — Telenor cites gender as a business priority.

It provides six months paid maternity leave, on-site child care, schemes to upskill women and transport to ensure they avoid harassment on public services — all of which were recognised by a women’s empowerment award last year from foreign investors in Pakistan. Telenor called it “a testament to our continuous efforts to empower and enable females in our work culture”.

Women in Pakistan still face cultural barriers to gaining training and acceptance into technical or leadership roles. But gender diversity is not just about corporate responsibility, says Areej Khan, Telenor Pakistan’s chief people officer.

“When you are tapping into a diverse pool of employees, it brings to light the products and services that people need — they speak on behalf of our customer base,” Khan says. D&I is “a cornerstone of our business strategy”.

She points to Telenor’s subscription service, tailor-made for rural women, which also provides information on livestock rearing, family health, nutrition, hygiene and sanitation. Its mobile payment product, she adds, has 12mn accounts channelling 5 per cent of the country’s GDP — with a quarter of subscribers women.

“So it is business logic,” she says. “When you have a workforce that can speak on behalf of your customers, you come up with innovative products and services.”

Khan worked her way up from an entry level job 19 years ago. Women now comprise 13 per cent of Telenor’s management and 17 per cent of the company’s 1,100 employees in the country.

Asia has been tough terrain for western telecoms operators, though. Telenor was forced to leave Myanmar after the 2021 coup. But, if doing business in Asia faces problems, it is not because of Telenor’s approach to diversity, says chief executive Sigve Brekke.

He dates Telenor’s general D&I focus to 2015. After connecting people to basic mobile services, it pursued a strategy of partnerships with digital companies that led to better teamwork and new ways of working. Gender was the most glaring imbalance, he says. The top leadership team of 150 was about 20 per cent female, a figure now at 34 per cent. Diversity has broadened as Telenor’s work experience programme has expanded — for example, it now includes refugees. Management teams are also expected to have at least one person with a foreign or different cultural background.

Work on the way employees speak to each other has led to more respect for different genders, cultures and views — particularly important in Asia, where being respectful is a competitive advantage. The company’s culture is now “much more global and international”, Brekke says, “helping us to collaborate in different ways”.

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