Dr Martha Suárez Dr Martha Suarez is President of the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance and has over 15 years of experience in the telecommunications industry.

She spent over three years as General Director of the National Spectrum Agency in Colombia where she was responsible for promoting the efficient use of spectrum, having originally joined the ANE in 2013. Suarez is an electronics engineer, with a master’s degree in high frequency communication systems and a doctorate in electronics.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

If you had asked me what I wanted to be when I was younger, I would have told you I wanted to be a teacher. I have always enjoyed teaching and even went to a specialist high school in Colombia to pursue this, but my love for maths is what swayed me from a young age to focus on engineering and telecommunications. In Colombia, to be an engineer you have to study for five years so I enrolled at the Universidad Industrial de Santander for a degree in electronics engineering. During the third year of my degree, I participated in an exchange program to France which in turn, following the completion of my degree in Colombia, led to a scholarship to complete my masters degree in high-frequency communication systems at the University of Marne-la-Vallee in France and subsequently a Ph.D. from the University Paris-Est.

After I completed my Ph.D. I was given the opportunity to work in Poland for the Partnership for Cognitive Radio Par4CR European Project, which led me to explore the areas of wireless system architectures and the design of high-performance Radio Frequency (RF) transceivers – this is where my love of spectrum intensified. Following a change of location back to Colombia I joined ANE, the National Spectrum Agency in Colombia, where I worked as a Senior Advisor to the General Director before taking on the role of General Director a few years later to promote the efficient use of the spectrum and the mobile broadband connectivity in Colombia.

Since then I have been elected as the first female President of the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance (DSA) where my main role is to increase dynamic spectrum access around the world and to help lead projects with regulators in this industry, such as with government agencies and universities. The DSA is a global, cross-industry, not for profit organization advocating for laws, regulations, and economic best practices that will lead to more efficient utilization of spectrum, fostering innovation and affordable connectivity for all. By working with regulators, we are able to help facilitate the next steps to connect the unconnected and truly change people’s lives.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

When I finished school, I didn’t know that I wanted to be an electrical engineer, but I knew that I was good at maths and that I really enjoyed it. I like to understand how things work and the more I looked into it, the more I realised that the spectrum industry was where I wanted to be. Within this industry, there are always new opportunities and new doors to be opened. In my career I have worked on the research side and the regulator side and although both are very different, they are also intertwined and as you progress through your career you can see how it all makes sense together. When I moved from working at the regulator to becoming the President of the DSA, I had hit a point in my career where I felt there was an important piece that was missing. Now I get to work with a group of well-known companies that are changing the world in terms of technology and IT and that is really exciting!

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

Throughout my career I have come across many challenges. Completing my Ph.D. was really tough, and I realised early on that I needed to have a high level of motivation to complete it. Luckily for me, I had two female directors during my Ph.D who were really good role models for me and they gave me the motivation to see it through. Moving locations constantly was also hard and despite getting used to it after a while, it gets harder to travel so much once you have a family. Along with the stereotypes that I and other women have faced in this industry, working in a role such as this can be incredibly tough and I believe that you really need to enjoy what you are doing otherwise there are many times in life when it is easy to give up.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Being appointed as the first female President of the DSA is definitely my biggest achievement. The role is really important to me as so many global companies are trusting me to represent them in terms of advocating spectrum sharing technologies. The DSA gives me the opportunity to work with people all over the world and to encourage policies in order to increase worldwide affordable connectivity. The impact that this role can have in the real world is just incredible.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

My tenacity is probably the key to my success. Over the years, I have had to trust in my own instincts and learning to have confidence in these decisions has helped me to be successful. There are many moments in life where things don’t go well but you have to have the conviction that this is what you really want and strive for it.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Life is a learning process. Every step that you take you are learning from the good and the bad. When I started working for the National Spectrum Agency on the spectrum authority side it was difficult as I had come straight from working in the labs and had a completely results oriented vision, I wanted everything to be precise and without so many hierarchies or delays. Afterwards, when elected the General Director of the Agency,  I also had to develop completely new so-called “soft” skills at the same time of assuming a huge responsibility in terms of management, like being responsible for budgets and public processes, that was a completely new world for me and a steep learning curve. Luckily, I had a very good team around me to learn from so I would encourage others to learn from the people around you regardless of your position and then adapt yourself to the environment.

It’s also important to learn new languages and understand the context of different cultures, especially when you work in a global role that requires a lot of travelling. Having this good cultural understanding can help in so many aspects of your life and learning to speak in different languages is something that I love – I am fluent in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese and although not fluent I have also studied German and Polish.

I would also recommend learning key skills including negotiation, conflict management and leadership. As engineers we tend to focus on the numbers which, although they are important, this is not the only aspect and these other skills can prove fruitful during your career.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

There are still barriers in place – we are still seeing ‘first time’ achievements for women across many industries (such as NASA’s first ever all-female spacewalk!) which really highlights how far we have to go in not only achieving the ‘first time’ but continuing to achieve ‘every time’ on an equal scale.

However, I believe a large part of this is down to the fact that sometimes we are too accepting of the status quo and believing that this is the way it will always be for women. There should be far more women in technology – not just engineers but also women working in a wide range of roles. It is also important to have more women in directive positions and give younger generations especially the opportunity to see both women and men as the face of huge tech organisations.

Ultimately, it is vital that we all respect each individual’s choices and give them the opportunity to pursue these choices. For example, for women who take a break from their careers to have a family, organisations need to have structures in place so that women can take that break without it impacting on their careers.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

Stereotypes are hard to break but they will never change if women are not allowed the opportunity to do so. In my experience women can sometimes be hesitant to take risks due to the fear of failure, especially in situations where stereotypes are strongly present. If companies encouraged women to break down these barriers and to take part in things like leadership schemes this will go a long way to help.

Organisations need to hire more women in general and have social advantages such as flexible working for women having children. Europe has already shown progress with this, but it is not the case everywhere in the world and it really makes a difference to know that they can stop for a few months and then return to their job.

Giving women the platform to have a voice is truly key. Industry conferences, as an example, are areas that we can improve on. If you have a panel of five speakers, at least one should be a woman. We should be seeing changes like this everywhere.

There is currently only 17% of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

The reality is that there is no magic wand, but I am constantly encouraged by the change that I see across the industry for women. It cannot happen overnight, but a lot of people are making small and large changes on a daily basis that are helping us to reach the ultimate goal. Young girls should be encouraged to pursue technology careers and given the opportunity of choice alongside the many other career paths that are available.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

There are more and more regional networking groups for women in tech worldwide and I will always recommend becoming a part of these. A great example of it is ChicasTicLatam (@latam_tic) and I invite you to follow our posts, attend the meetings and become part of the group.

A great resource is following industry discussions and special initiatives for women in technology, an example is the ITU launched EQUALS initiative (@equals), a global network helping girls and women get equal access, skills and opportunities in tech. Another resource I would like to mention is the Broadband Conversations podcast hosted by FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. The podcast is dedicated to highlighting women who are making an impact on our digital lives and each episode recognises individual women who are breaking new ground and forging new paths in technology, media, and innovation.

There is a huge impact when women come together as individuals or groups, so any opportunity to do so will greatly help to accelerate the pace of change.