SC Digital Congress: How has working from home impacted women in cyber? Is it a plus or a minus?

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Women can be set up for failure if they have not got the qualifications and experience to perform the role, and then are not supported. WFH requires more support & flexibility to have a life and do a job.

In our opening panel session, SC Congress Digital tackled the issue of The Future Outlook of the Cyber Security Industry: Women, Diversity and its Increased Importance in ‘New Normal’ of Working from Home - ably led by moderator Jane Frankland, founder & CEO, Cyber Security Capital & the IN Security Movement.

Frankland was joined by a highly informed panel of Deshini Newman, managing director EMEA, (ISC)2;  Dr Victoria Baines, visiting research fellow, University of Oxford, and Mahbubul Islam CSyP, chief information security officer, HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS).

The underlying premise of the session is that the industry has largely accepted that it is not adequately tapping the talent of under-represented groups, and women in particular, leaving security teams short staffed, and subject to group think - especially concerning as the input into AI will determine its output.  And even when the sector does attract female talent, the drop out rate is too high - hence the issues range across how to prepare women to enter the sector, enthuse them to do so, and retain them when they do join. In theory, increased working from home should benefit women, who still often take on the majority of domestic duties, but could it be the reverse?

In the bid to be inclusive and employ women, Frankand kicked off by tackled a less discussed aspect, noting how some women can be set up for failure if they have not got the qualifications and experience to perform the role, and then are not supported.  Also, that it is not just about having a passion for the subject - as some proponents seem to suggest - and this approach can also put people off entering the profession if their starting point is pivoting from another sector.

Baines responded that sometimes a person can grow to the role - as the roles can be so varied, it is not expected that everyone has every skill on the checklist, and women do need to take more risks (in terms of taking on stretching roles beyond current experience) and women - indeed everyone -  needs to be given the same slack to learn in the role and can’t be expected to be immediately perfect.

Islam noted how some candidates may have different skills (than purely hard tech), such as leadership.  The role (of CISO)  is so complex and focussed on ability to deliver, so where we get our colleagues from can be very different.  We need to give people the opportunity to learn, progress and get other colleagues into the industry.  And don't shut the door behind you - and let others progress beyond you in the future. He described achieving diversity as a challenge, even by those keen to promote it.

Frankland described how we all have biases.  So while good intentions are there, mistakes are made - and it needs education of leaders in how  to build our teams, and cultures, doing the work and not waiting for HR for training on X, but to go and do the work yourself as your success is built on the people you employ

Newman asked, “Why is it not easy to talk about?  We are all professionals and we need to be comfortable to bring it out.” She went on to say that “both tech skills and non-tech skills are needed, so what are the non-tech skills needed?” There will be more opportunities to work from home, so we should consider what non-tech skills can be brought, and then (those candidates) can learn the tech skills required.

Frankland described the new normal as, “An amazing opportunity to work from home,” but asked, “is this going to level the playing field or take us back, because of the stress in the home, and household duties falling mainly to the women in a two parent household?” adding that in single parent households, which account for a quarter of families, 90 percent are headed by women.  So will working from home hold women back? 

Newman said that organisations need to offer the flexibility to have a life and do a job. That the current situation demonstrates people don’t need to be stuck at a desk 9 - 5, but can get a work life balance and give what the organisation needs to meet its deadlines.  However, she agreed with Frankland that we can’t ignore the fact that women are taking more of the home responsibilities - but that we should also give credit to those men who are doing their bit.

Baines added that a key difference in perceptions of working from home was that, for first time, people at the top are now experiencing working from home and both the positive work ethic and the distractions.  Presenteeism had been driven by the CEOs need for staff to be seen to be in the office.  She added: “Those more traditional CEOs, and older people in industry will now see it is possible to be on a zoom call and work from home - but it does require a change in mindset - as long as you get the job done, it doesn't matter if you are also doing the school run.”  It was acknowledged that it can be challenging to carve out family time and separate personal and professional time and people need to be able to say ‘ “I am not working now, but I will get the job done by the deadline.’

Frankland reaffirmed her view that it is an opportunity, and that she doesn’t believe things will go back to how they were.  Other issues to consider are burnout affecting people, mental health, and how are we compartmentalising, building best practice to live better and happier lives.

For Islam the changes mean that working from home is now socially acceptable by senior leaders but there are long hours done from home, and some things can't be done from home (eg hospital doctor),  Now senior leaders are experiencing it themselves, there is a changed context of working from home.  This includes the welfare of employees, the support around them, and there is a lot now being done. This includes being a lot more flexible, allowing  Zoom calls with fiends and colleagues, breaking up work sessions with home responsibilities, and being more understanding and accommodating - which he says is happening  in the Civil Services.

Frankland says that there used to almost be shame in admitting to being a one-parent family juggling with work. But as  people become more accepting of everyone's background and commitment and senior leaders are able to help and support, we can now talk about how it is normal for children to be in the background, even  when important calls are taken.

Baines added that there are, however, some real business concerns.  In fact it could be the market which could force this change (to remote working) as Offices  are being closed, In central London and other high cost centres, companies can save a lot of money by not maintiaining a city-centre office.  As more businesses can see they can save money and cut costs, more it will open up to the opportunities of remote working.

Newman agreed that many organisations are not going back into offices.  A most important issue relates to trust - where you can trust employees, the battle is won.  Some employers are still not comfortable with employees working from home which comes back to trusting that the objectives will be met by the end of the week.. More people can and will be working from home and and more jobs will be from home, demonstrating staff can be trusted..

Frankland asked will the change result in organisations going global when sourcing of talent? Employees will need to demonstrate their value, and their visibility will become  more important as this threat and opportunity opens up.

Newman responded that the best person for the job should be given the task to get the job done, or if you have the ability, you should learn the skills to do it. She also said that you do have to show commitment - eg a working mum might ask, ‘is it ok to go off for a swim with the kids?’ The answer is, ‘Yes, if you are meeting your objectives.’

Frankland concluded that leaders need to build psychologically safe environments and this needs good leadership practices so that staff don't need so much direction. She observed that women may wait for permission more because of how they are brought up, but suggested that rather than waiting for permission people should just get on with the job  - though of course acknowledged that it also depends on the environment and culture of the organisation.  

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