Houston: We Have A Problem!

The recent film Hidden Figures tells the story of the impact three African-American women had on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) space program in the 1950s and 60s. The movie highlights the struggle these women experienced working in a male-dominated industry. Fast forward to 2017 and women are still vastly underrepresented in the science and technology industries.

I recently met a young woman in Ireland who was working toward a technology-oriented degree, and she recalled being among three women in her course at the beginning of the semester. By the end of the semester, she was the last woman standing. The student suspected that her female classmates wavered on continuing their course of study because their classes were so male dominated.

I can empathise, having experienced more than my share of conferences and board meetings lacking female presence. A report by Payscale (Inside the Gender Pay Gap) finds only 21 percent of executives in the technology industry are women, despite the evidence that diversity in the workplace leads to greater innovation and profitability. Recently, ISACA’s report The Future Tech Workforce: Breaking Gender Barriers identified the top barriers women face working in IT as:

  1. lack of mentors (48 percent)
  2. lack of female role models in the field (42 percent)
  3. gender bias in the workplace (39 percent)
  4. unequal growth opportunities compared to men (36 percent)
  5. unequal pay for the same skills (35 percent)

While some women are more comfortable than others being vastly outnumbered, the shortage of female mentors and role models in the technology sector poses a major concern.

Additionally, women have still not reached wage parity with men. According to the Payscale report, women are paid 18 to 22 percent less than men. Unfortunately, Australia and New Zealand ranked highest in the ISACA research for pay gap disparity, with 80 percent reporting that male colleagues tend to be paid more compared to 53 percent in Europe and 42 percent in North America.

Further compounding the problem is the global need for skilled cybersecurity professionals. According to the ISACA State of Cybersecurity 2017, 59 percent of organisations say they receive at least five applications for cybersecurity job ads, compared to most job ads that receive 60 to 250 applicants. Additionally, fewer than one in four applicants have the qualifications an employer needs. The study also found that over 25 percent of respondents say it can take up to six months to fill a cybersecurity position.

Given the urgent needs of organisations and governments to hire skilled professionals to address the constant barrage of cyber threats they face daily, the solution seems obvious. Encouraging women in all facets of technology roles, but especially cybersecurity, could greatly improve the current skills gap.

A Silver Lining in Australia’s Cybersecurity Needs?

They say admitting there is a problem is the first step in fixing the problem. Thankfully, I believe the Australian tech industry has officially woken up and recognises the need to address gender diversity.

I am constantly questioned by an ever-increasing group of men at conferences asking what more can be done to encourage women to join them in their careers. Most have partners and daughters who are interested in careers in IT security. And I am resolute in my response: we must address the underlying problems.

To address this gender gulf is everyone’s responsibility – men, women, employers, educators and industry associations. After researching and discussing the issue with industry peers, here are my recommendations to address the problem:

Establish a mentoring program and seek role models: These were the two biggest barriers faced by women in the technology workforce, according to the ISACA survey, but they can be quickly and cost-effectively addressed. Women should be encouraged to be confident and persistent in pursuit of their technology careers, and a mentor in the field – whether male or female – can be the most effective person to make that case. Providing mentors and role models helps to achieve goals and share knowledge, improves employee retention and job satisfaction, and increases productivity.

Create a culture of corporate diversity: There is a scene in Hidden Figures in which one of the NASA scientists asks Mary Jackson, “If you were a white male, would you wish to be an engineer?” To which, Mary replies: “I wouldn’t have to, I’d already be one.”

According to ISACA’s survey, only eight percent of women said they never experienced gender bias in the workplace, and only 22 percent of women believe their employers are very committed to hiring and advancing women in tech roles. Blind recruitment and reviewing promotion policies are a good start, but gender diversity needs to be acknowledged and addressed from top leaders within the organisation in order for women to feel like their work and contributions are worthwhile.

Ookeditse Kamau, CISA, MBA, CIA, CRMA and IT internal auditor, said companies should, “Embrace a culture that does not make it feel like women have to work harder than a man to get the job.”

Cultivate tertiary students: Students are not always aware of the job opportunities that are available to them. According to Girls in Tech MasterCard research, which surveyed teenagers in Australia and Asia about Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), young Australian women are the least interested in these subjects compared to the rest of the region. If a greater level of interest cannot be sparked, the cybersecurity skills gap will continue to increase.

Organisations should consider creating an outreach program or internship program with a local university. Actively speak with professors to find out how they are engaging their students to get involved and remain interested in a course, and ask what the business can do to assist. Businesses need to profile IT security career opportunities so that there is an even greater pool of talent. Through this active engagement, students will be able to see the possibilities.

Provide the right education and tools for the job: According to Girls Who Code, the proportion of computer science degrees obtained by women has dropped 20 percent since 1984 to a mere 18 percent. There are programs underway to address this, including that by Melinda Gates of the Gates Foundation, who is exploring ways to make computer science more appealing to women. After university, women need the same kinds of training and support as men in order to succeed in their careers. The ISACA research shows that only 57 percent of women feel they have access to those important resources. The numbers are similar when women were asked if they were getting appropriate feedback for their work and training.

Investing in performance-based mechanisms for hiring and retention can help organisations assess the performance level of all staff, and on-the job training can be provided to keep skills current.

Establish career advancement programs: Even at a time when more women are urgently needed, women still deal with too few career opportunities and too many barriers to advancement. By providing more opportunities, including career advancement programs, long overdue progress can be made in ensuring that women are more equitably represented in the technology workforce. Organisations should actively identify women from within their organisation with tangible skills to move into cybersecurity positions, which can incentivise and motivate employees.

Provide flexible working options: Providing flexible working arrangements is another important component of addressing the gender disparity. Having ‘Keep in touch’ days when women are on maternity leave, in addition to encouraging professional development opportunities such as webinars and online courses, are other worthwhile ways to ensure that women remain connected to the organisation while on leave. Work-from-home arrangements are an easy option for all employees, empowering and motivating them to manage their own schedules around their personal and work life.

The ISACA survey findings reinforce that while many people are aware of the issues within the industry, there is much work left to be done. Women are vastly underrepresented in the global technology workforce. This is not only a societal concern, but also a workforce problem, given the critical shortage of skilled technology professionals faced by many enterprises.

In addition to promoting a more just society, enterprises have bottom-line motivation to hire and promote women. Research from The Peterson Institute for International Economics and EY (Is Gender Diversity Profitable? Evidence from a Global Study, 2016) shows that an organisation with at least 30 percent female leaders could add up to six percentage points to its profit margin.

A challenge this large can feel overwhelming, but there are steps everyone can take to make meaningful progress. With determination, the day will come when classrooms, offices and boardrooms are filled with empowered women ready to make their mark on the technology workforce.


Jo Stewart-Rattray has over 25 years’ experience in the IT industry. She specialises in consulting in information security issues with a particular emphasis on governance in both the commercial and operational areas of businesses. Jo provides strategic advice to organisations across a number of industry sectors including banking and finance, utilities, automotive manufacturing, tertiary education, retail and government.

Jo heads ISACA’s Connecting Women Leaders in Technology, and chairs the Branch Executive Committee of the Australian Computer Society. She is also past chair of ISACA’s Audit Committee, Leadership Development Committee and Security Management Committee.