GCHQ launches all-female cyber-skills classes to tackle shortages

GCHQ launches all-female classes in cyber-skills in an attempt to recruit a wider range of online security experts.

Earlier this week the GCHQ cyber defence arm, the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) announced it was launching all-female classes in cyber-skills in an attempt to recruit a wider range on online security experts.

Only 10% of the global cyber workforce are female, says GCHQ, meaning that millions of British women may be missing out on a career they could excel in using cyber-skills.

According to a report on the BBC, there will be 600 free places on all-female CyberFirst Defenders courses in April and May this year, run as a mix of residential and non-residential training events. The intention is to make cyber-skills more appealing to teenage girls, in a field that is dominated by male stereotypes.

Leading experts welcome the initiative citing that more diversity in the sector and workplace is needed, especially with fears of serious skills shortages rising.

What the experts say

Adam Philpott, EMEA president, McAfee, says: It’s fantastic that GCHQ is doing its part to encourage young women into STEM careers at an early stage, but this is only one aspect of the wider diversity problem.

“Companies themselves also need to build diversity into every single process, programme and initiative to counteract unconscious bias. Data suggests that most cyber security staff seek the same qualities in others that they see in themselves, which explains how the talent pool has become so homogenous. However, once aware of this, organisations can implement initiatives to promote greater diversity.

“Building diverse teams should be a no-brainer for businesses, as doing so has clear benefits – from boosting creativity to achieving greater financial success. Not only do diverse organisations have a wider bank of perspectives and expertise to draw on, but companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.

“This initiative from GCHQ will bring great benefits for the UK. But it’s crucial that programmes like these are rolled out more widely, across the EMEA region and indeed the globe. Today’s skills gap is an international issue that can only be addressed through co-operation between businesses, governments and non-profit organisations.”

Jan van Vliet, VP EMEA at Digital Guardian:  “We’ve all heard over the last several years about how the cyber security talent shortage is a crisis. Bridging the gap, by employing a diverse cast of cyber-aware workers, remains a chief concern for CEOs, CISOs, and executives alike. It’s important to educate today’s youth on the importance of cyber security and the plethora of roles available throughout the field.”

Derek Lin, Chief Data Scientist at security intelligence and management solutions company Exabeam: “The question is why not support diversity in the workplace? There’s a reason why companies spend millions of dollars on workplace diversity programmes. It’s been well reported that conforming thinking is not healthy for a company, or the teams within it.” 

Derek continues: “There have been numerous studies that show having a more diverse workplace actually makes an organisation a better place to work. Ultimately, a successful organisation needs diverse opinions and ideas – different, and valuable, perspectives on problems.

“Any initiative that strives to create a level playing field, regardless of the game, should be encouraged. I have two young daughters and I see absolutely no reason why the choices they will make and the opportunities that will be open to them will be different because of their gender.  Whether that’s in the classroom, on the sports team or in the workplace, I expect them to have the same opportunities as anyone else.  

“I am proud to say that the data science team in Exabeam that I am guiding is gender balanced, at 50-50% women to men. I have come across women from multiple different backgrounds with varying life experiences. Individual women do differ in their attitude to the workplace, but no more or less than men. To me, each individual is unique when it comes to mentorship, regardless of gender, and take different paths to progress their growth in their organisation.”

Tara O’Sullivan, CMO at Skillsoft: Tech and cyber security are infamously known as ‘boys clubs’.  White, middle-class males dominate the industry.  These are the men responsible for the hiring, promotion and retention of women in cyber security.  But with women still making up a tiny 10% of the cyber security workforce, attention to diversity is still lacking.” 

Tara continues: “The reasons for this are multiple.  Tech and cyber security are, on a broad scale, viewed as jobs for men – by women and men, fathers and mothers, CEOs, teachers and so on. We need a significant cultural overhaul.  A female having a career in cyber security needs to become a social norm, not a rarity.  This starts in schools, where we need to encourage girls to have the confidence to do whatever they want, even if traditionally it was seen as ‘boyish’. 

“That’s not to say companies can’t take action now.  CEOs, executives and company leaders need to demonstrate their attitude to diversity.  Being outspoken on this creates a culture and shows you stand for equality in the workforce. Communicating this throughout the whole organisation will ensure the message sticks, and will give women the confidence to take on the roles they want. Getting female talent into the industry is only half the story.  We need to make sure they have the confidence and support to progress through their own careers.”

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