Time to commit to female talent

by Mark Rowe

As employees and school children continue to work from home and rely on remote digital infrastructures during the covid-19 pandemic, Dr Kevin P Stenson, CEO at The Smallpeice Trust, explores how cyber security can tackle its labour shortages through boosting gender diversity and encouraging more women to join the field.

Over the past century, women have fought social, political and economic battles to receive the same rights as men. Two world wars in the 20th century triggered a dramatic change in the professional and domestic status of women, as female workers proved they were more than capable at carrying out typically ‘male’ engineering and manufacturing jobs. Gender equality progressed rapidly, as increasing numbers of women embarked upon professional career paths. Certainly, in some sectors such as education, medicine and law, women are increasingly prominent in the general workforce and leadership roles, but other industries appear to be a long way off from achieving full equity.

Unfortunately, cyber security is one such industry with much progress left to be made. Whilst cyber security is one of the most fast-paced, rapidly evolving modern industries, this evolution does not appear to apply to the number of women involved in the field. Back in 2013, research firm Frost and Sullivan produced data showing that women made up just 11 per cent of the global cybersecurity workforce. Seven years on in 2020, and according to Cybersecurity Ventures, the figure now stands at 20 per cent. Although this is a slight increase, uptake has been slow compared to the industry’s own rapid internal advancement.

And yet, in the UK alone, over two more million engineers (working across industries, including cyber security) are needed by 2025 to meet demand and support the country’s economic growth and expansion. With a recent report conducted by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport revealing that over half of cyber security companies struggle to fill generalist cyber roles, it is clear that we can no longer afford to be complacent about tackling the industry’s lack of diversity.

It is especially urgent that we fill these roles given the impact of covid-19 on workplaces and schools, as many of us continue to work and learn from our homes and therefore rely on accessing remote digital infrastructures. Our global reliance on being able to safely use remote systems underlines the importance of anticipating and responding to potential cyber security threats. The National Cyber Security Centre even issued an alert in September 2020 following a spike in cyber attacks on a number of educational institutions, in which malware – was utilised to lock users out from their own computer systems.

To effectively address the growing threat to our national digital infrastructures, it is time the engineering and technology sectors fully commit to nurturing talent from a diversity of backgrounds – including applicants from low-income backgrounds, girls and women and BAME communities. Some of the cyber security industry’s most vital skills are creativity and critical thinking. It’s time to apply these skills internally, during hiring processes and across the education sector to encourage children and young people from all backgrounds to pursue a career in engineering or technology.

Raising awareness and investing in the drive for equality is a good starting point. Robust education to make cyber security – and generally, roles in STEM industries – more accessible to women is key in breaking down barriers and dispelling misconceptions around the sector. It’s important to remember that cyber security’s poor gender diversity isn’t down to lack of opportunities for women, and it’s certainly not because men are anymore capable or innately suited to these roles. It’s about role models and students’ perceptions of which careers are ‘suitable’ for them to consider. After all, some of STEM’s most pioneering figures (from Ada Lovelace to Margaret Hamilton) were women! Delivering events, work experience and careers talks in both schools and universities allows students a real insight into the day-to-day life of an engineering professional and making the industry accessible for all.

Education is of course an essential part in boosting gender diversity in cyber security, but companies must consider their own gender split before lecturing on the importance of equality. For example, cyber security experts at Surevine – which builds secure and scalable collaboration solutions for the most security conscious organisations including the UK Government – has pioneered females in the cyber security industry with its first employee and first executive director both being female.

In recent years Surevine has taken its drive towards gender diversity a step further by forming a partnership with us at The Smallpeice Trust to give a wider diversity of society the ‘experience’ and potential for working in the world of cyber security.

Improving gender, socio-economic and race equality has been the driving force behind The Smallpeice Trust since we were founded over 50 years ago. Established by brilliant British engineer Dr Cosby Smallpeice, who ploughed £1.6m of his personal fortune into setting up The Smallpeice Trust, we work with partner organisations, such as Surevine, to give young people, especially girls, these role models and experiences to fuel their passion for the STEM subjects. Registrations for our wide range of engineering, STEM and cyber security residential training sessions and seminars (currently provided online) are now achieving a 50:50 balance between girls and boys.

Ultimately, if the cyber security industry is to tackle its skills shortage, it will need to continue its outreach to a diverse range of communities and address harmful stereotypes that can dissuade women from pursuing a career in the sector. As Laura Crossley, Director at Surevine, says, this outreach “helps mould the future minds of our industry. Who knows, the children of today might one day become fully-fledged Sureviners.”

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