Notes on Career Conversations with Women in Cyber Security

Written by: Vertical Structure on Nov 08, 2019

Digital DNA was the setting this week for a very important panel discussion on how the cyber security industry can become more inclusive of women, and how we can attract more female candidates into the industry.

As the only male on the panel I was very conscious not to be seen as pretending I have all the answers! But we need to ask the right questions, to get to the right answers.

Our host Dr. Liz O’Sullivan from Allstate began the panel with some strong opinions – and that’s what is needed to push this issue up the agenda. She said, “There is something wrong when only one side of a community is represented. There is something that needs to be fixed here. Maybe from NI, we can pave the way.”

I was joined on the panel by:

  • Caron Alexander, Director of Digital Shared Services for NIGov
  • Denise Carroll, from Allstate NI’s cyber security education team
  • Dr Ayesha Khalid, who teaches QUB’s Masters in Cyber Security – post-quantum cryptography is her area of research

Liz said, “In 2007 there wasn’t even cyber security. But in just a little over 10 years it has exploded.

“In NI, salaries of £70m are paid each year in cyber security to roughly 1700 people employed in the area.

“We know we need more bodies – but why do we need more women?

Caron said, “There’s a huge gap in technology and beyond into STEM – we’re obviously doing the wrong things at the minute. We can’t keep doing the same things – women aren’t attracted into cyber or technology – our job is to make it attractive. One of the ways we’ve tried to get females in is by rewording the job descriptions, talking about how the job is about helping people, problem solving and delivering solutions.”

I said that I completely agree – the tech world is vastly skewed with men. But innovation is such a key part of what everyone is doing. In a study, 84% of CEOs said innovation is vital to their business but only 6% said they are happy with their innovation. A study on Broadway musicals and their cast members showed that when the same group of people were working together for a long time, innovation decreased – but having diversity led to greater innovation, which led to greater success.

Ayesha said that “In my recent electrical engineering class of 66 students there were 6 women – this percentage hasn’t changed much over the years. Women are equally talented and they make the workplace a better place.”

Denise pointed out that, “We know we need more people. By 2021 there will be 3.5m jobs open in cyber security – and that’s scary to think about.”

Liz said, “At a young age girls are just as interested in tech as men. Allstate had a very strong girl cohort but something is happening along the way. In maths we were 50/50 but in cyber security and computer science, the numbers of women were always low.”

Caron said, “The stereotypes that we’ve created are the problem. We need to break that stereotype. It’s not all about money. Giving more opportunities for women to have work/life balance – we’re introducing flexibility and investing in people.”

The question of mentorship was a key topic during the panel.

Liz said, “We need more female role models in the workplace. We need women to stand up who can say ‘I never thought I’d be a role model, but I’ll stand up and be one.’”

Liz then asked each panelist to describe how we got into technology. While Caron was always interested in technology, and Ayesha was always on the academic path towards tech-related PhDs and other degrees, both myself and Denise did not come from a technical background. I came from a role in theatre, and like Denise, I retrained in IT subjects using remote learning.

Liz pointed out that “People think you need a traditional career path to get into cyber security, but the truth is that if you have the passion and are hardworking it’s probably one of the easiest areas to get into.”

She went on, “You also have a purpose in your job – you’re trying to beat bad guys.”

Liz concluded the panel by asking for one piece of advice we’d give to someone interested in cyber security.

Caron said, “Day one – get a mentor. You need coaching and someone in the background to make you feel secure – just ask someone.”

I said, “Keep on learning – there’s a vast amount of literature and online courses – that sense of curiosity is what is vital.”

Ayesha kept her advice simple. She said: “Just go for it!”

Denise said, “Don’t be afraid to ask questions – I think of the heartache and time I could have saved myself if I had just been able to ask questions.”

Liz said, “I told myself I wasn’t good at maths – I have a PhD in maths. Never give up and always keep going.”

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