SecurityBrief Australia - Technology news for CISOs & cybersecurity decision-makers
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IWD 2024: Advancing inclusivity - Women leaders coding a new narrative in the cybersecurity landscape
Fri, 8th Mar 2024

The technology sector has made undeniable strides forward in female inclusion, though it remains an industry largely dominated by men. New data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency shows key decision-making roles across industries in Australia lack adequate representation of women. In addition to comprising only 29% of the tech workforce in Australia, women are particularly underrepresented in leadership positions, constituting just 18% of CEOs and 22% of board members in tech companies.

As we celebrate the 2024 International Women's Day, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on how far we have come and to examine how we can continue to improve. As leaders, our job is to make sure team members feel connected and supported. As the executive sponsor of the Women in Zscaler Engage employee resource group, I am proud to support the members as they cultivate both new and established connections, design initiatives to support fellow women and engage in the mutual exchange of wisdom.

But diversity and inclusion take nurturing to increase women's participation and fortify their representation in the workforce.

Inclusivity in technology
It's important to understand that tech offers roles beyond engineering and support. There are opportunities in sales, marketing, product management, and a litany of other disciplines. The tech sector is expansive and inclusive, playing a significant role in shaping our world. It would be disheartening for young women to hold onto a narrow caricature of what this industry actually is – or could be. Technologies like GenAI are rapidly emerging, and we could use everyone, regardless of their background, to imagine and advance possible futures for these technologies and their potential applications. Inclusivity, in short, is becoming increasingly important.

The positive influence of remote work
Another development, the rise of remote work in recent years, has provided new opportunities for women in STEM fields and fostered more inclusive workplaces. Studies indicate that, by the end of 2023, a higher number of women, particularly those who are caregivers, were participating in the workforce than ever before.

While flexibility is beneficial, it does present challenges. A significant number of women exit their careers in the industry by the age of 35, and the "motherhood penalty" remains a tangible problem. Mothers are frequently perceived as less competent and committed, resulting in lower pay. 

As a mother of three daughters, I understand the pressures of managing a demanding career and a busy family life. I firmly believe achieving this balance requires supporting early-career women in tech, advocating for flexible work arrangements that consider household responsibilities, ensuring equal pay, and implementing parental leave policies that provide meaningful support. These proactive strategies can empower women to remain in the workforce and successfully return after the birth of a child.  

It's crucial to stay dedicated to effective strategies and practices such as:

  1. Providing mentorship to women early in their career and for those who express a keen interest in the cybersecurity sector.
  2. Advocating for flexible work arrangements that recognize the disproportionate share of caregiving responsibilities are often shouldered on women.
  3. Emphasizing the importance of equal pay and supportive maternity leave policies to not only retain women in the workforce but also provide incentives for their return after giving birth.

Creating an impact
I recently hosted Zscaler's Women in IT & Security CXO Summit and the powerful presence of the professionals in that room was something I will forever cherish. This gathering of IT and security leaders from outstanding companies was focused on three key areas: executive development, IT and security best practice sharing, and exponential leadership. I was blown away by such accomplished women, at this stage in their careers, coming together to network and collaborate for the advancement of their peers, their organizations, and the global economy. It struck me that the economic and decision-making power of these women would have been unimaginable a few decades ago.

Today, cybersecurity extends beyond IT; it's a vital business asset. Highly sought-after skills like communication, collaboration, empathy, and respect are pivotal in closing the gap between business and information security, technical and non-technical domains, as well as tech companies and their customers. These so-called "soft skills" are now in-demand and women are often better positioned to provide them.

Many women possess a remarkable ability to navigate multi-threaded and highly collaborative tasks. To act with broad vision. To bring empathy to their work. These attributes align with the tech industry's broader incentives. As the data bears out, organizations that harness these particular skills will outperform those that fail to foster inclusion. 
This is also true at a national level. Australia, like other nations, faces rising cybersecurity challenges and a serious threat to its economic prosperity and national security. Building defenses means not only harnessing all of the technical tools at our disposal, but ensuring we are using all of our human resources too.