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I started my career as a mechanical engineer and through an unexpected turn of events, landed up in cybersecurity.  Although this may sound impressive to some, and definitely makes for an interesting story, these two careers are very similar in a pretty uncomfortable way.  I may just be a sucker for punishment, but I essentially left one highly gender-exclusive field for another.

According to SWE, just 7% of mechanical engineers are women (compared with 14% in chemical engineering) and although a whopping 36% of computer systems analysts are women, just 11% of information security professionals are women. Out of all the technical fields I could have chosen, I chose these two zingers!

So why is this necessarily a bad thing?

This weekend, I had the honor of hosting a panel of amazing leaders in the information security field at the AusCERT conferences in Gold Coast, Australia. The topic was “Diversity and Women in Cybersecurity” – embracing diversity to close the growing skills gap facing the industry.

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Globally, women make up just 11% of the information security workforce and this percentage has not changed since 2011.  The stagnation of women’s participation in the workforce is particularly troubling as the gap between available and unfilled positions in cybersecurity is estimated to grow to 1.8 million by 2022. Attracting and retaining more women has the potential to shrink this, but only if they can be hired, trained and retained in sufficient numbers. Not only is diversity key in addressing the skills gap, but in a security landscape where attackers continue to outpace defenders, enriching problem-solving with a diversity of perspectives, could be pivotal in keeping up.

Women are starting ahead but quickly falling behind

The Global Information Security Workforce Study is conducted every 2 years by the Center for Cyber Safety and Education. The latest study conducted in September 2016 surveyed just under 20,000 male and female information security professionals from 170 countries worldwide.

The study found that women are entering the field with higher education levels than men. 51% of women vs. 45% of men enter with a master’s degree. Secondly, there is one women for every 6 men in non-managerial roles, but this drops to 1 in ten at the manager level. So women are coming to the field more educated, but quickly falling behind their male counterparts.

What is unconscious bias and why does it matter?

The study asked men and women about diversity and inclusion. 51% of women say they have experienced discrimination in the workplace, whilst only 15% of men reported experiencing discrimination. Of those women who said they had experienced this, here are the stats:

  • 87% experienced unconscious bias
  • 53% experienced unexplained denial/delay in career advancement
  • 29% said they’d had exaggerated highlighting of mistakes, errors or occurrences
  • 22% tokenism
  • 19% were victims of overt discrimination

Unconscious bias refers to a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.

Unconscious biases are a major contributing factor in women not being hired for jobs that are traditionally held by men, such as “manager”, for not being paid as much for doing the same work, for not being handed challenging assignments and for not achieving leadership roles at the same rates as men do.

A Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research found that managers are significantly more likely to critique female employees for coming on too strong, and their accomplishments are more likely than men’s to be seen as the result of team, rather than individual efforts. This is irrespective on whether the manager assessing the candidate is male or female.

  • Women received 2.5 times the amount of feedback men did about aggressive communication styles, with phrases such as “your speaking style is off-putting,”
  • Women had more than twice the references to team accomplishments, rather than individual achievements
  • Men also received three times as much feedback linked to a specific business outcome, and twice the number of references to their technical expertise.
  • Men’s reviews contained twice as many words related to assertiveness, independence and self-confidence—words like “drive,” “transform,” “innovate” and “tackle.”

Sheryl Sandburg said in Lean In, ““Aggressive and hard-charging women violate unwritten rules about acceptable social conduct. Men are continually applauded for being ambitious and powerful and successful, but women who display these same traits often pay a social penalty. Female accomplishments come at a cost.”

Ok, so that is one study. Is that enough to prove that unconscious bias exists?

A Yale study called “Constructed Criteria – Redefining Merit to Justify Discrimination” asked participants to evaluate male and female candidates for the traditionally male job of police chief. Candidates were rated based on 2 factors: education and streetwise characteristics. Although evaluators gave the candidates fair scores for how educated or how streetwise they were, when it came to selecting the candidate for the job, evaluators started doing a very strange thing. They assigned more weight to the characteristic that that male candidate had performed well on.

If the candidate was well-educated and media-savvy, the evaluator saw this as a critical quality for success in the role. But when the candidate was lacking in these qualities, these were suddenly not very important to the role. Evaluators were shaping the criteria to fit the candidate. Unfortunately, the female candidate was not show this favoritism. Male evaluators were shown to be more biased than female evaluators (although both were pretty biased).

What is even more interesting is that evaluators were then asked to rate themselves on how biased or objective they thought they were. The results are even more shocking.

Female evaluators who considered themselves more objective were, in fact, more objective. But male evaluators who considered themselves the most objective were actually the most biased! Among men, there was a clear inverse relationship between shaping evaluation criteria to fit an applicant, and how objective the evaluator though he was.


Wow, this is really an issue. What can organizations do about unconscious bias?

Its clear that unconscious biases are holding women and other minorities back from entering the employment market as a whole, and advancing in their careers. This effect is only amplified in high gender-exclusive technical fields where the echo-chamber is particularly strong.  As these fields are still dominated by a narrow demographic, it is far less likely for individuals and groups to be aware of their biases.

Some organizations however, are awakening to this and starting to not only realize the untapped potential in a diverse workforce, but are actively working to change their culture to embrace diversity far more purposefully than ever before.

My next blog will talk about some of the things organizations are doing to facilitate these programs and what individuals can do to become more aware of their own unconscious biases.