Recruiting for gender equality in cyber security: opportunities from COVID-19

By Elisabeth Mackay, Cat Eaton

The under-representation of women in cyber security is undeniable. Those working in cyber roles are more than twice as likely to be men than women. At the same time, nearly half of UK businesses lack the people and skills needed to protect their networks, digital services and data.

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted how we work. It’s forced revolutionary change and, in part, accelerated many workforce trends. Organisations have had to adapt their working and recruitment practices to survive. For the cyber security industry, this presents an opportunity to redesign recruitment and roles, and to revise priorities, processes and structures so we can grow critical skills and the next generation of cyber professionals. Doing so will make the industry more inclusive, opening it to a wider pool of diverse talent and closing the gender imbalance.

Nurture adaptability

The cyber industry moves swiftly, and COVID-19 challenged that flexibility further as it increased reliance on digital and connected networks. This has highlighted the need for organisations to prioritise adaptability in their cyber teams. Successful cyber professionals need to be passionate about continuous learning and enjoy problem solving – the pandemic has shown they need to be flexible, pragmatic and embrace lateral thinking.

Such qualities are, however, hard to learn through courses or qualifications. They’re the product of aptitude and experience, and not necessarily experience within the cyber sector. Currently, around half of people working in cyber previously held another cyber role. Improving access to the sector, such as through cross-sector recruitment, training programmes or cyber apprenticeships, would allow organisations to tap different talent pools for transferable experience and aptitude.

Widening access to cyber jobs for people at different stages in their careers, through initiatives such as mid-career retraining, return-to-work initiatives, and looking at cyber aptitude rather than previous STEM experience, offers increased opportunities to redress gender imbalance.

Change recruitment to increase access

Recruitment practices have already changed in response to the pandemic. For organisations still able to hire, technology has become integral to the process. Video interviews are now the norm. Onboarding via online inductions and virtual buddying programmes have superseded classroom days and workplace shadowing. And HR departments have had to work as virtual teams to plan and deliver recruitment campaigns.

Some organisations have also taken this as an opportunity to redesign and speed up the recruitment process, update the questions they ask and understand the transferable skills and aspirations applicants come with. This has led to a team, largely recruited during lockdown, that is very diverse and trusts each other to work flexibly.

While accessibility wasn’t the primary goal of such changes through the pandemic, it has been a happy result. Applicants who might not otherwise be able to attend an interview – whether due to childcare or caring responsibilities, disability or the cost involved in travel – can interview remotely without fear of prejudice. One logistics firm has even gone so far as to offer internet connectivity to host remote interviews, so those with limited internet access can attend. It’s important to maintain such beneficial changes to recruitment, even when the opportunity for face-to-face interviews returns.

Adapt working practices

Women are four times more likely than men to work part time, and almost 30 per cent of women with a child under 14 have reduced their hours due to childcare, compared with less than five per cent of fathers. Meanwhile, a 2018 study found that familial caring responsibilities, such as for elderly relatives, are rising in the UK, particularly amongst women. Notably, more women in professional and/or managerial roles are providing care to family members – 19 per cent had caring responsibilities in 2018.

During the pandemic, disruptions to schooling and childcare, and restrictions on movement, have blurred the line between people’s work and home lives. While this is likely to have impacted workplace equality (with many women bearing the brunt of home schooling responsibility), it’s also started to normalise the essential balance of work and personal lives – something that could play a significant role in redressing the gender imbalance in cyber security.

Evidence suggests access to flexible working enables parents to stay in work and retain higher paid jobs. Providing employees with a choice of working location would have a similar effect as less frequent travel means they can spend more time at home and live further away, reducing childcare needs and improving housing affordability. We’ve already seen a shift to home working due to the pandemic, and organisations should retain that hybrid model where appropriate to create a more inclusive culture.

The pandemic can spur more equal working practices

No-one would have chosen the pandemic as the means to enforce strategic change in the workplace. But it represents an opportunity. Many employees have been calling for the professional flexibility it has engendered for decades. Employers should seize the opportunity to retain at least some of this change and positively impact their diversity and inclusivity as a result.

About the authors

Elisabeth Mackay Digital trust and cyber security expert
Cat Eaton Digital trust and cyber security expert

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