Women in business: What we can learn from Hilda Ericsson
This month marks Hilda Ericsson’s 160th birthday. As wife to LM Ericsson, the company’s founder, she rarely received recognition for her contribution to the company’s growth in its early years. Here, we discuss her influence, the progress of women in business, and the challenges that still lie ahead.
What’s in a name
There’s significant ground to cover when it comes to the history of women not receiving the recognition they’ve deserved. There’s Rosalind Franklin and her work on the discovery of the double helix, Lise Meitner’s work on nuclear fission, and mathematician Katherine Johnson, whose work and struggle for equality at NASA in the 1960s was recently honored when NASA renamed a facility in West Virginia in her name.
From Joan of Arc to JK Rowling, untold numbers of women throughout history have also disguised their gender to be able to make a name for themselves and their work. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was originally issued anonymously with a preface by her husband. And Joanne Rowling’s famed initials aimed to avoid boys being ‘put off’ by a female author.
Elsewhere, female names has been eclipsed by their male counterpart. Clara Schumann – a talented composer. Nanerl Mozart – a child prodigy. And it’s here we introduce the relatively unknown Hilda Ericsson. She would have turned 160 this month, which is why it’s time to relay how she helped lay the foundations of one of the world’s biggest telecommunications companies in the world.
Hilda Ericsson: A pioneering powerhouse
From the time of Ericsson’s very first mechanical workshop in the 1870s, to becoming a leader of the communication industry 20 years later, Hilda worked alongside Lars Magnus Ericsson. She began her career working with the key ingredients of a telephone: winding electromagnetic coils with satin-coated copper wire. As demand for telephones increased and the company grew, the couple went on to hire more staff, and it became a team of women who took on the job of winding electromagnetic coils.
Hilda established her role looking after customers, managing the factory staff, taking on orders, negotiations, and making sure that the company ran smoothly. Much like today, she did most of her work from home – mainly so she could look after the children. The fact that she wasn’t physically seen may be a reason why she was not credited for her work at the time, and it’s only through private letters that we now understand her true contributions. In one of the many letters sent between Hilda and Lars Magnus, aged just 21, she writes:
”All 200 telephone rolls are ready and I am in the process of winding an inductor, but the wire seems made of real waste, as there is a break nearly every 20th followed by long pieces that cannot be used at all. I will try to get some wire from the workshop that might possibly be better.
We have not yet received any payment from Gefle, but hope one will be here at the same time you get this letter since I wrote a friendly reminder to the wholesaler Andersson.”
The letter is dated from August 1881, around a year after the very first telephone calls were being made in Sweden. Our technology may have changed since then, but Hilda’s words reflect Ericsson’s values even today. A combination of technological know-how and customer focus.
Hilda took a key role in the family business at a turning point in history. With the electricity and communication industry booming in the 1880s, Lars Magnus would often travel abroad on business, which meant running the company in Stockholm was always left in Hilda’s hands.
Women in business: Where are we today?
Here at Ericsson, we’re involved with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education for girls. According to research from the World Economic Forum, less than 30 percent of the world’s researchers are women. Women working in STEM fields are published less frequently than men, and often have a lower salary. We also see an imbalance with students in STEM, where just 8 percent of students enrolling to higher education engineering, manufacturing and construction courses are women. This decreases to 3 percent for ICT courses.
That’s why, for the past eight years, Ericsson has participated in International Girls in ICT Day every April, engaging and inspiring girls to consider ICT as a future career option. In 2019 there were more than 11,000 collective celebrations involving 357,000 girls and young women. Of course, we had to think a little differently in 2020, so we provided downloadable learning kits – all of which are still available – to provide children with inspiring material they can enjoy from home.
At our offices in Athlone, Ireland, Ericsson has set up a range of initiatives called Investing in Future Software Engineers, or INFUSE. Using the phrase, “If you can see it, you can be it”, the program aims to create interest in software engineering and technology among young people. It kicks off for students aged 10+ and runs throughout their secondary school education, into further education.
We believe that by engaging with students from a young age, the program avoids many of the negative stereotypes associated with this particular career path, especially for future female engineers. In the 2019/20 academic year the program reached over 5,500 students, and due to its popularity, the initiative will soon open up on a global scale.
In 2019, women accounted for 25 percent of the total Ericsson workforce and 32 percent in the executive population (the employed workforce reporting to executive team members). We’re proud to have surpassed 30 percent female representation among our executives, but we’re aware we still have more work to do, and we’re committed to achieving a better gender balance across the company in the near future.
This is why our Women of Ericsson Employee Resource Group (ERG) is so important. Launched in 2015, the group now has over 700 members, who work together to foster diversity and inclusion across the company.
“WE has helped me grow in so many ways. Having informal female mentorship and receiving tailored career advice and networking is phenomenal. I also really benefited from the group when I came back from maternity leave, receiving great advice and support.”
Dara Lundquist, Digital Engagement Manager and ERG member.
“Women of Ericsson ERG has helped broaden my perception of what women in male-dominated fields contend with and the extra lengths they have to go to be heard. It has provided me with valuable insight into the advantages that come with diversity and inclusion of women in all workplaces at all levels.”
Christopher Wright, Operations Management Manager and ERG member.
In addition, we recently launched our ALTitude development program, that aims to accelerate the career progression of women to leadership positions in technical, commercial and delivery roles. It’s an eight-month initiative with a blended learning approach that includes active, executive sponsorship. After the pilot phase of ALTitude, 33 percent of participants had already transitioned to new roles when the program concluded.
Behavioral science is also something Ericsson has started using, to understand and change biased ways of working and ensure more fact-based and fair decisions throughout the organization.
It’s clear that creating a diverse work environment creates more value across the board. It has been proven to increase innovation and productivity, improve employee satisfaction and even boost revenue.
We still have a long way to go. In the private sector, just 7 percent of CEOs leading the world's 500 major corporations are women. Although this number has increased from 4 percent in 2016. In Europe, women make up 52 percent of the population, but only account for 30 percent of start-up entrepreneurs and make up just 18 percent of senior executive roles.
It will take some time to reach the same kind of gender split we see in populations as we do in the boardroom. But as journalist Michele Norris recently quoted on Michelle Obama’s podcast: “Don’t reach for normal, reach for better”. Today – this year in particular – many of us are demanding that society reaches for better. Pushing for change can be a long journey, but progress and perseverance – even if it’s one small step at a time – are key to reaching a better ‘new normal’.
Read more about the Ericsson’s history and people.
Read our blog post about Women in tech: the role of climate, gender and ICT.
Learn more about Ericsson and gender equality.