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Splunk .conf2016: Closing the tech gender gap requires a shift in culture

Cyber security experts assembled at the Splunk 2016 conference to discuss the gender gap in cyber security and what can be done to solve it

The percentage of women working in the technology sector has not changed much in recent years, remaining at about 16%.

But, with the need for skilled workers in the sector growing, there is a danger that ruling out half the population when selecting candidates will make the problem worse.

Cyber security is an area in need of an increasing number of skilled workers, and it is argued mentorship and other initiatives should be put in place to make the space more attractive to diverse candidates.

Lanita Collette, Northern Arizona University’s information security officer, said some roles have fewer women than others, and that this often down to negative stereotyping of the types of people holding tech jobs.

“We have a cultural problem, even within a supportive institution,” she said.

According to Collette, people working in IT security are often thought of as “cyber-warriors”, with cyber security roles still perceived as “aggressive, traditional and male orientated”. She said the message needs to change.

Haiyan Song, senior vice-president of security markets for Splunk, claimed changing these perceptions was not just up to the firms advertising cyber roles. 

“There’s an image, a stereotype,” said Song. “Hollywood needs to make more movies where the geeky hoodie head isn’t representative of people in cyber any more.”

Culture change is a group effort

As well as the negative stereotype surrounding some tech roles, the women on Splunk’s panel agreed that the culture of an organisation can also contribute towards putting off minorities from applying for technology roles.

To make a role more “attractive” and “inclusive”, the culture of the team is very important, as is creating an environment that people want to work in.

But, according to Song, to steer the culture of an organisation, everyone needs to be on board. Acting as the glue of a community is something women are particularly good at.

More than a gender gap  

Diversity is coveted in teams, as diversity of employees encourages diversity of thought, but firms often focus too much on technical skills when hiring staff, without considering what other skills are needed for tech roles.

Tina Thorstenson, acting vice-president and chief information security officer (CISO) at Arizona State University, said as the tech industry has grown, people who could be trained to fill a role are overlooked in favour of the few people who have the technical skills needed to walk straight into a role, which has led not only to the gender gap, but also the skills gap.

Not only are employers failing to consider soft skills, but many also still suffer from an unconscious bias, making them more likely to hire people who are like them, leaving out the diverse applicants.

“It’s so important that we don’t have this vision of exactly what the team make-up needs to look like,” said Thorstenson.

Hiring, retaining and mentoring

Once the culture of an organisation is more inclusive, and women and minority groups begin applying for roles, the diversity of skills in those hired must also be looked at.

There has been a shift towards hiring people with softer skills and training them on the more technical side of a role, with communications and teamwork skills now equalling the importance of tech skills in potential candidates.

“I hire engineers and architects and analysts, and they all need to be able to have a conversation with students, frontline staff, managers or a vice-president, and they need to be able to speak to our executive team and cut to the crux of the issue.”

Once people are on board, however, keeping them can often be an issue.

“The way you keep people is by empowering them; you give them something new and fun and interesting,” said Thorstenson.

The power of empowerment

The panel pointed out that the average amount of time a CISO will stay in a job is 18 months, and many women drop off in their careers at a certain age when work is perceived to be inflexible.

Thorstenson said: “A lot of women don’t go into these roles because of the hours and the expectation you have to be available all the time.”

Julie Tablot-Hubbard, head of information security operations at SunTrust Bank, said many employees will leave an organisation when they feel they can no longer make a difference or if they don’t feel supported and appreciated.

Thorstenson added: “Empowering your employees or team means to guide development and drive things. You’ve got to build a relationship and support for the team.”

Giving women confidence

Imposter syndrome – the term used to describe accomplished individuals who lack confidence their own abilities regardless of how competent they are – is often associated with women in the IT industry.

Thorstenson pointed out that many women will not apply for roles due to a lack of confidence, and this is also a huge factor in women leaving organisations: “Young women don’t have the confidence in themselves, yet confidence is a key factor in helping keep them interested.”

To tackle this, Thorstenson suggested sponsoring younger women, especially in male-dominated firms, and ensuring they have the career progression and mentorship they need to stay and grow with a firm.

By focusing on changing culture, removing negative stereotyping, focusing on soft skills and helping instil confidence in female employees, not only will cyber security jobs be more attractive, but firms will be able to retain good employees. But, as the panel highlighted, this cannot be the job of one person alone – it takes a village.

Read more about diversity in the IT industry

  • Judith Williams, the global head of diversity at Dropbox, explains how to increase and sustain diversity in tech and the wider workplace.
  • Recruiter Structur3dpeople utilises the power of social media to spread the word about women in the technology industry.
  • Sinead Bunting from Monster, Heather Picov from Apps for Good, Emma Chalwin of Salesforce and Melinda Roylett from PayPal discuss how to recruit diverse talent in the IT industry.

Read more on IT jobs and recruitment

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