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Women in IT: Progress in Workforce Culture, But Problems Persist

Women looking to build a career in IT still face multiple challenges, starting with a lack of support in their youth, but female IT leaders can act as mentors -- and inspiration.

Women in tech and IT are still facing the challenge of working and growing their careers in a male dominated environment, and organizations need to make a more concerted effort to eliminate the elements that should not be accepted in the workplace, such as harassment.

These were among the results of an Ensono survey of 1,500 female full-time tech workers in the US, UK and India, which found in the US, about one in five women report experiencing sexual harassment and verbal harassment.

Kamales Lardi, Valtech's managing director in Switzerland, says the most concerning element that stood out for her is the experiences women face with workplace harassment and abuse.

“It is discouraging to see that these experiences prevail, despite many organizations claiming that there are elements in place to avoid such experience,” she says. “I came up in the technology industry in the 90s and 2000s, having faced these scenarios and often being told that the issues lie with me -- I am sure many women faced a similar situation.”

However, with the level of awareness there is about the current tech and business landscape, she says the industry should be seeing a decrease in such occurrences.

From her perspective, women already in leadership positions need to sponsor women coming up the same path.

Lardi explains mentoring refers to providing guidance, while sponsoring refers to providing opportunities and putting them forward to roles/opportunities.

“This includes creating and maintaining a community of women who can support and encourage each other,” she says. “In my experience, men do these more than women in the business world.”

Encourage STEAM Development Among Young Women

Proofpoint’s Global Resident CISO Lucia Milică says far too many women have been discouraged from pursuing STEAM (for science, technology, engineering, arts and math) careers, and a majority also believe that a lack of skills is holding them back.

“This is particularly troubling as the cybersecurity industry faces a profound talent gap,” she adds, pointing to a recent (ISC)2 report estimating the shortage of cybersecurity professionals at 2.72 million.

“That's an astonishing number when considering the serious risk inadequate staffing places on organizations striving to implement robust cyber protections,” she says.

From Milică's perspective, the greatest challenge facing women in IT today is a lack of role models.

“Women need to be the role models who can inspire young minds, especially more women and minority leaders,” she says. “Even at the individual level, each of us -- teachers, parents, and other influential adults -- can plant the seed and grow the understanding among young people of the importance of IT jobs, and how that career path can make a difference in our world and society.”

She adds hiring bias and pay inequality, along with the lack of female role models, leaders, and advancement opportunities, all discourage women from pursuing a STEAM career.

“Women have to work much harder both to get hired and to advance their careers -- which perhaps explains why 52% of women in cybersecurity hold postgraduate degrees, compared to only 44% of men,” Milică notes.

She adds the industry also hasn’t done a great job sparking interest at an early age.

“Attention to a career path starts with children as early as elementary school, and by middle or high school, many students will have made their decisions,” she explains.

She says capturing the interest of girls at an early age is one of the most effective ways to influence future generations of STEAM workers.

Cultural Shift Must Occur to Compliment Job Opportunities

“It’s not only about the number of women in the industry or the open opportunities, but about the organizational culture,” explains Shira Shamban, CEO at Solvo, a Tel Aviv-based security automation enabler for cloud development and production environments. “When walking into a room full of men, it’s not easy to fit it naturally and that’s why many women believe there is not adequate opportunity for them.”

Like Lardi, she says the overall culture should support diversity and these kinds of changes come from the leadership trickling from the top down -- setting an example.

Shamban adds one of the reasons one doesn't see many women in IT and tech is because of a shortage of women within the industry to begin with -- that leads them to believe it is not a right fit for them.

“That’s why, as leaders, we must actively look for women who are professional and talented, there are so many of them out there,” Shamban says.

She explains it’s important to make room for them and show more women there is a place for everyone in IT and that they should not be intimidated by the male majority.

“Together, we will change the statistics and create a more welcoming environment for everyone,” she adds.

Fostering Inclusion, Guided by Female IT Leaders

Milică says organizations need to rethink what it means to be a security professional, challenge degree requirements, do more diversity hiring, and make sure their workplaces foster inclusion.

“They also need to look for outstanding women, then highlight and reward them,” she says. “Executive leadership must make it clear that hiring and retaining women in IT positions is a priority.”

Sending that message from all aspects of the business is key and does have impact to the wider talent pool in the community.

“Women in leading IT roles have a responsibility to push their organizations to cultivate an inclusive work culture that encourages women to advance their careers,” she adds. “They should help foster an environment where everyone is given an equal chance to progress --otherwise they risk losing out on valuable tech talent.”

Having key women in leadership roles who can support other women in the workplace -- as well as sharing their achievements and expertise -- helps businesses retain existing female talent and attract future female workers.

Shamban adds there are some exceptional women in tech leadership today that make it a priority to support and promote other women.

“Knowing that within our industry there is a high awareness, that there is tremendous will to change, and various engines in place that will lead to necessary change, gives me hope that next year’s survey and the ones to follow will look brighter,” she says.

Milică points to some “incredible organizations” out there that are striving to close the gender gap.

The Executive Women’s Forum offers mentorship, leadership, and scholarship programs to advance and develop women working in the information security, risk management, and privacy fields.

The Forte Group provides career development and advocacy for women executives in cybersecurity and newcomers.

Others, such as CybHER, seek to develop an interest in girls at the primary education level.

“These are examples of how industry leaders can put their heads together to elevate women in cybersecurity,” she says.

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Editor's Choice
Brian T. Horowitz, Contributing Reporter
Samuel Greengard, Contributing Reporter
Nathan Eddy, Freelance Writer
Brandon Taylor, Digital Editorial Program Manager
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing