Many of us are aware that the tech industry is a predominately male dominated field, with the UK cyber workforce currently being made up of only 8% women – a figure which has grown over time but is still undoubtedly low. We spoke to two women in the tech industry: Rebecca Leigh, Developer in DevOps and Finance Systems at Next, who’s just started out in her career, as well as Bev McGowan, CEO and Founder of The Specialists Hub and Female Tech Ambassador Winner 2021, who has over 20 years’ experience in the field.
“You have to believe in yourself and constantly keep pushing your own boundaries. If you are presented with an opportunity and are only comfortable with 50% of it, that’s an opportunity to improve and learn by 50%. Follow your own path and don’t concern yourself with what others are doing: anything is possible.” – Bev McGowan
“Don’t be afraid, even though I’ve mentioned struggles. Everyone has a different path, different feelings, and a different approach to work. You shouldn’t let what others say worry you, especially at school, university, or in the workplace. If it’s something you enjoy and an industry you want to get into, you should go for it and don’t let anyone hold you back. There is a whole network of people who are eager to help and want to help.” – Rebecca Leigh
Why do you think there are so few women in the tech industry?
Bev: I don’t think girls at school have had enough access to female role models in this area, early enough to decide that this might be a career path they would like to explore. Much of this is changing now and there are programmes like Cyber First challenging it, but more still needs to be done. I also feel that there isn’t enough awareness around the types of roles in cyber security – not everyone is a Penetration Tester! There are some interesting pathways, for example in Threat Intelligence and Risk Analysis which are equally as important as the real technical stuff. Also, organisations need to be identifying talent internally, and encouraging women to move into these roles, providing the right development and support mechanisms. Having a good mentor can really help.
Rebecca: Even though there have been strides made to make the industry more women friendly, I still think it’s been targeted at the wrong age groups. Usually, these sorts of tactics are aimed at A-Level students who have already decided what they do/don’t like, so by that time most students know what they want to study. I’m happy to see the number growing – from talking to the women in the office they say how great it is that we have more women in IT, but more can still be done to improve it. I think that because the industry is so male dominated people forget that your gender shouldn’t matter and you can still go into the industry with your head held high. Hopefully more can be done to change it over the next few years.
What factor has helped you the most in making a successful career for yourself as a woman in tech?
Bev: There were multiple factors which helped me make a successful career such as showing my passion and dedication for what I did as well as the commitment to continuous learning. Also, being honest and committed to delivering what I set out to, finding and taking opportunities to grow, and just good old hard graft! I have been extremely fortunate in that I started my tech career in the mid-90s as an apprentice working for a global, forward-thinking, and inclusive organisation. I was fully supported by my Head of IT and subsequently CTO, who nominated me for the Citi EMEA Tech Leadership Programme at 22. Although I was the only female in the IT team for the first few years, I always felt valued, supported and that my work and opinion meant something. It probably helps that I am quite assertive (or some might say bossy) and grew up with brothers, so the male environment felt quite normal for me.
Rebecca: Not letting yourself be put down! My Cyber Security course at university was all men. A lot of them were really welcoming and happy to help me if I was struggling, as a lot of them came from very heavy coding backgrounds, whereas I did not. However, even though there are the ones out there who want to help, there are still some who don’t like the fact that women are coming into the field and have tried to diminish spirit. If you’re going to come into the computing world, it’s something to be expected, but also something you should not let stop you.
In our modern society, hiring managers are often torn between hiring the most qualified person for the job, or hiring someone who would provide an element of diversity and fresh perspective to their team. How would you approach this dilemma?
Bev: I think it is important to have diversity in your team. There are some technical roles which require certain technical skills and, in some cases, a specific qualification – so I don’t think it should be one over the other, it’s a balance. I certainly don’t think someone should be hired just to improve a statistic; this is not what we are trying to achieve. We should be making sure everyone has access to the same opportunities and education in order to progress in their chosen career. Creating an inclusive culture in the organisation and the industry. Providing the support, skills, and knowledge that individuals need to meet their goals. Helping people to believe in what they can achieve and supporting them on that journey. These are all key features of bettering the imbalance.
Rebecca: I’ve heard that a lot, especially when I went for my placement interview: some of the boys on my course told me that I wouldn’t have to worry because I was a girl, but I have mixed opinions about it. More companies are open to diversity and want to provide everyone with the same job opportunities, which is great, but if you had two people sat in front of you for an interview, you would want to pick who best suits the role, regardless of gender and other differences. Whether companies can get an average mix of those who are best for the job and those who deserve an opportunity, it needs to be fair both ways.
Why do you think the tech industry would benefit from having more women in job roles?
Bev: Not only do women bring technical skills, but a broad range of softer skills and experience including leadership, interpersonal, communication and empathy.
Rebecca: Even though we strive for women and men to be equal we’re still different: the way we think, the way we work, and the way we interact with others. It’s not always specific regarding which gender can do what better, but there is often a difference between the strengths of men and women and for a business or organisation to succeed there needs to be a mix of both in the workplace. Depending on the women and men as well, there are different types of leadership you’ll get, but I have found the leadership I get from women is a lot more hands-on.
What would be your message to women looking to break into the tech industry?
Bev: First and foremost, believe in yourself. Look into the various pathways available and find what most fits your skillset and interests. Commit to self-learning and developing your skills and knowledge. Find yourself a good mentor or two and network, network, network!
Rebecca: Aside from keeping your spirits and head held high, appreciate the amount of background knowledge there is to know. Going from university into a work environment was a massive culture shock for me. I’ve only used about two or three things in the workplace that I learnt at university, which means that everything else I have learnt on the job. A mistake I made was thinking that everything I learned at uni was going to be needed, but in actual fact hands-on learning (like an apprenticeship!) has been so much more beneficial for me and my role.
 Research by the WSC, STEM Women, Solving the Gender Imbalance in Cyber, 2021 [Online]