“Connectivity is almost a human right”

Vantage Towers CCO, Sonia Hernandez on the importance of digital inclusion and workplace diversity

Sonia Hernandez, Vantage Towers

Sonia Hernandez is a tour de force in the global tower industry. Exuding passion, she has reached the upper echelons of the tower and telecom industries having served as CEO of Vodafone Malta and now CCO of Vantage Towers. Driven by the need to address the digital divide, Sonia’s passion extends to her feelings about diversity in the workplace. Here TowerXchange speaks to Sonia about some of her personal learnings from her career, the challenges that the industry still faces and what needs to be done to improve gender equality and general diversity in the workplace.

TowerXchange: Please can you provide us with a bit of background on your career to date

Sonia Hernandez, CCO, Vantage Towers:

I am electrical engineer with over 25 years of international telecoms experience. I have worked in Germany, Brazil, Italy, Spain, Luxembourg and Malta, relocating nine times and speak five languages.

I began my career at Nokia Siemens before moving to Vodafone and now Vantage Towers and have held a variety of roles spanning from sales, to human resources, to supply chain, to CEO and board member to a CCO of a public listed company, where I currently find myself.

I am always open to change and new challenges, working with and relying upon teams of talented people. I am very committed to making things happen and don’t take “no” as an answer!

TowerXchange: With a long career in the telecoms industry, what is it about the sector that motivates you to keep driving forward progress?

Sonia Hernandez, CCO, Vantage Towers:

As the world went into lockdown and we all found ourselves pivoting to collaborate with our colleagues and customers over video calls, virtual conferences and on Cloud-enabled shared documents, it quickly became obvious just how important one element was going to be in achieving this ‘new normal’: connectivity.

On the other side of the coin, the pandemic has shined an illuminating light on the places where coverage hasn’t been sufficient to enable home working and schooling – typically in more rural areas where the biggest barrier to provisioning these places with coverage has been the cost of building infrastructure.

The gulf between these coverage ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ is called the ‘digital divide’. For me, the sentiment that underpins any discussion on universal coverage needs to be collaboration. Tackling the digital divide in Europe is, of course, deeply complex – but with the right social attitude, collaboration and business incentives in place, it’s certainly not inconceivable that we’ll achieve 100% coverage in the near-future.

I am truly passionate about this subject- Connectivity is almost a “human right”

TowerXchange: Have you ever felt any limitations in your career because of your gender, either because of the workplace or because of family commitments?

Sonia Hernandez, CCO, Vantage Towers:

No, never. I have always given my best and outperformed and delivered on my commitments. I have worked hard to build a strong personal brand and professional network in the industry; you typically meet people more than once and so it is important to have a solid and strong reputation.

In terms of balancing personal life,– you cannot be everywhere and do everything and so it is about making choices in different points of your life and clearly defining the priorities for yourself. We are not superwomen, we are human and as such, we need to ask for support when needed. It is important to make sure that you have your logistics well organised, your personal life under control and a system in place that works for you. That way, when you enter the office and start your day, you can be fully focussed on the tasks ahead. Similarly, when you leave the office and finish your day, you can also focus on your personal priorities. It is about time management and prioritisation.

TowerXchange: Do you think that as a whole, the global workplace is making good strides in improving gender equality – what sorts of initiatives do you see as particularly impactful? Where do you think that bias (unconscious or otherwise) still exists?

Sonia Hernandez, CCO, Vantage Towers:

The global workplace is indeed making good progress, very much so. The towerco industry still lags behind many other industries in terms of gender equality and we need to do more to tackle this. I have taken this as a personal commitment within my role at Vantage Towers. Currently within my commercial team there is a 50/50 split when it comes to gender, which is great as you get to see how the balance works perfectly.

In terms of the most impactful initiatives, there a few that I would mention. Firstly, it is in having in place leaders that believe gender equality is better for the company performance. Such leaders arrived at this mindset having given more and more women the chance to be themselves in the workplace, putting more women in leadership positions, and seeing the results.

Secondly, I believe that the flexible working policies that we now see (and which have been accelerated during COVID-19) are of great help to women who still take on most of the commitment at home and with children. As to why women still take on the lion’s share of family commitments is a separate discussion, but the flexible working policies are extremely helpful for women who wish to continue to extend their careers and move into leadership positions after having had a family.

Digitalisation has supported this transition to flexible working and has been very important tool in aiding women progress in the workplace.

Bias does still exist amongst a legacy type of professionals, people who haven’t moved with the times and are still living in the past. Such people haven’t evolved their minds, behaviour and ways of working and aren’t open to change. This type of thinking is however more rare in the newer generation of professionals.

TowerXchange: Balancing family life and work is arguably one of the biggest challenges for many women with multiple factors, pressures and emotions at play. What have been your experiences on this front and what more do you think companies can be doing to support women through this to retain and develop talent?

Sonia Hernandez, CCO, Vantage Towers:

The first thing is to make a choice – what is the priority in each different phase of your life and what compromises are you willing to make? Not feeling guilty is the very first step. I am married and have two children (aged 10 and 13), if I feel guilty every time I’m not able to pick them up from school, or if I feel guilty when I travel a couple of times a month, it won’t work for me. What does work for me is having a system in place with the necessary support, the first line of which is my partner – we share responsibilities equally When I had my children however, I decided to take a break over 7-8 months to give that phase its full focus and quality.

I think we have to take it as a positive that there is quite a lot of awareness about the relevance of women in our workplace and companies are becoming more and more supportive. The situation is far better than it was 25 years ago, thankfully, and hopefully the issue of too few women in the sector should disappear sooner rather the later.

My first call of action is to women, calling out the bias that they themselves may hold – why do they question if they would be capable of doing the job? Build confidence, take risks and go for it! But be ready to compromise and set clear priorities for yourself.

As to what companies should do, they need to pay attention when they are recruiting, making sure that they are always interviewing women for a position. The only way to balance gender in the workplace is to focus more on recruiting talented women, and supporting talented women to step up in their career. More focus on talented women please!

TowerXchange: As an ESG champion at Vantage Towers, how are you sending the elevator down so to speak, encouraging and supporting females within the company or broader ecosystem to progress in their careers?

Sonia Hernandez, CCO, Vantage Towers:

The first thing first it is to walk the talk- I have recruited a team with a 50/50 gender balance. Secondly, it is important to lead by example. I lead by giving the best of myself. I am authentic, passionate and very driven to make things happen. I demonstrate my courage to the entire company, making my goals and objectives transparent, and I fully trust my team to do a good job with my eyes closed. I am always on hand to support whoever requires it.

TowerXchange: Why is it so important that we nurture female talent within what is typically a very male dominated industry?

Sonia Hernandez, CCO, Vantage Towers:

Why is it so important? Because we have proven so many times that having a balanced and diverse team helps us get the best results! How much more time do we need to invest in convincing the legacy people who don’t want to move on!

One important thing that I do want to underscore however is that it is not about gender diversity, it is about diversity in general. The great combination of different genders, cultures, profiles and skills gives the BOOM effect in a team! At Vantage Towers I have managed recruit a team with a 50/50 gender split, 13 nationalities and a great mixture of profiles from different companies (suppliers, towercos, operators) and skills backgrounds (finance, sales, technical people). I am hugely proud of my team, I love to work with them, and they make me smile every day.

At home, I make sure I educate my daughter with no bias. She has been playing football for a few years and has recently started basketball, but she also does dance, and not necessarily does she dress in pink. I have seen a lot of bias when educating our children and we have to tackle the subject of diversity in these grass roots.

Let me share with you my proudest moment on this diversity topic. My son, Diego, at the age of 13 was suggested to make a ten-minute pitch on a topic of interest to him, and do you know what he presented for 13 minutes to the entire class? “The importance of cognitive diversity”. He recommends that we all should read the book “The power of diverse thinking” by Matthew Syed. Proud mum!

TowerXchange: Given your experiences, what advice would you give to women who are starting upon or aiming to advance their careers in a male dominated environment?

Sonia Hernandez, CCO, Vantage Towers:

Over the course of my university education and my career I have often found myself to be “the only woman” in the room and so I became accustomed to it. It became normal and I tried not to care or think about the ratios. I had made a choice to select a career in a male dominated field, and was fully aware of this.

My advice to other women in their careers is to have courage and take risks, building up your confidence over time. We can do everything that we want, as long as we are clear on our priorities and what we agree to compromise.

Leave a Reply