Virgin Media O2’s CTO on her mission to make business more inclusive

The telecoms industry had a "deplorable" gender balance when Jeanie York started out in the sector. Now she wants to be a catalyst for change
11. Jeanie York 1

In her four-and-a-half years as chief technology officer at Virgin Media and, since its £31bn mega-merger with O2 in 2021, Virgin Media O2, Jeanie York has been working to cultivate a more diverse workforce in telecoms as a whole.

York says that she’s seen a great improvement in the industry’s gender balance since the late 1990s, when it was “deplorable”. There were many occasions during that period when she was the only woman in the room. But she thinks that she may have been “desensitised” to the problem at the time, having moved into telecoms from construction, another male-dominated industry.

I spent the first year or two trying to be one of the guys

Because of her lack of female colleagues, York felt she had to adopt a work persona that aligned with the sector’s highly masculine culture. Doing so was an uncomfortable experience. 

“I spent the first year or two trying to be one of the guys,” she recalls. “I’d always been very feminine, so I was quite torn. I felt a certain way, but found myself presenting in another to fit into my environment.”

This is one of the big challenges that anyone from a minority group will still face in the workplace, according to York. 

“If you don’t have an environment where you can bring your whole self to work and still feel supported, you can struggle to find your way in an organisation,” she says. “I tried too much to be like the environment before eventually realising that isn’t who I am. I had to carve out my sense of self again. It took time to reconnect with my own style and beliefs.”

The telecoms industry clearly has become more inclusive since York joined it nearly a quarter of a century ago, although a sector survey in 2021 indicated that only 30% of technical roles were held by women in 70% of telcos. 

“I’m thankful to say that the situation is getting better,” she says. “It’s definitely shifting, but we still have a long way to go.”

The gender gap at Virgin Media O2

At Virgin Media O2, York is helping to develop an environment where no employee feels obliged to put on any kind of act to fit in. 

To this end, the company has established employee networks that represent LGBTQ+, disabled and neurodivergent staff, as well as unpaid carers and members of underrepresented ethnic groups.

“We want people to be who they are – and they need to be supported in that,” she says. “It’s really important for everyone to feel heard and respected, but we still need to move the needle further.”

If we could be more organised and commit to targets as an industry, that would be much more effective

Under the so-called All In diversity, equity and inclusion strategy it introduced last year, the company aims to achieve gender parity across the organisation, including the leadership team. It has also set a target for 15% of its leaders to be from minority ethnic groups. This figure increases to 25% across the wider organisation. 

Five members of its 12-strong leadership team are women. But there is more room for improvement in the workforce overall, where there is a 70:30 split in favour of men and a median gender pay gap of 4.2%.

York believes that her firm needs to offer as many ways as possible for young people to move up through the ranks if it’s to achieve its diversity goals. 

“I certainly didn’t have all the skills when I started,” she says. “People in our industry are really quite gracious and willing to take less experienced people into the sector and teach them.”

Mentoring and coaching are a key part of this. Such interventions can help in preparing people for leadership positions.

“We must ensure that we’re fair and objective in bringing such opportunities to everyone in the organisation – and that we’re constantly looking at how talent is evaluated and developed,” York stresses.

How the telecoms industry is addressing diversity

Many of York’s peers in the telecoms sector share her ambitions. She reports that every industry event she has attended in recent years has included at least one discussion about the challenge of improving diversity.

“All of us recognise that we must have programmes that reach out to these communities,” says York, who advocates sector-wide collaboration in this area. “If we could be more organised and commit to targets as an industry, that would be much more effective than independent companies doing their own thing.” 

As part of its outreach programme, Virgin Media O2 has sent representatives to 1,400 schools across the UK to speak to children in year six (ages 10 to 11). 

York describes this as “the best work we do. Part of our intention is to break down the misconception that you need very specialist skills to get into the industry. You can enter as an apprentice or a graduate with a non-STEM degree. So this is about teaching those young people that there are many opportunities.” 

She strongly believes that specialist technical knowledge need not be a prerequisite for reaching senior positions – even CTO – in a telco. 

“The skills you need are changing every year, so the reality is that you can’t possibly know everything,” York says. “Some people are good generalists and others develop strong specialisms. To be successful, a business needs both types of people.”

About 40% of the entrants to Virgin Media O2’s apprentice programmes last year came from schools that the company had engaged with. It’s a clear demonstration of the impact that outreach work can have. 

Although York acknowledges that improvements are still needed, she hopes that people recognise her firm’s commitment, adding: “We want to ensure that we’re a business that represents our communities – and our country.”