Increasing gender diversity and encouraging women into the tech sector has been a topic in the news for many years, yet women still remain largely under-represented in IT and Cyber focused roles.

At Women Empowering Defence we know the importance and value of increasing diversity in the workplace and want to encourage more women into the tech industry. 

Dr Clare Johnson is a Cyber Capability Consultant at ITSUS Consulting. She has over 20 years’ experience managing a range of IT and information security programmes and is particularly interested in skills development and linking industry to education. Clare is an advocate of diversity within the sector and is the founder of the Women in Cyber Wales network, which hosts meetings for women working (or hoping to work) in the sector. Clare has a PhD in Academic Misconduct Detection using Digital Forensics and has published several papers on this topic. She is a CyberFirst Ambassador, a member of UKC3 and the UK Cyber Security Council’s Outreach and Diversity Working Group, and a Fellow of the BCS. 

We have interviewed Clare to share her journey, advice, and experience to help put the spotlight on women in cyber with the hope to inspire more women into tech, cyber and leadership roles. 

What has been the driving force to get you where you are today?

I am very inquisitive by nature, so I enjoy learning and improving my own skills – it’s why I’m a paid member of TryHackMe and still practice the Rubik’s cube most days. My love of solving problems means a tech career was always going to be a good option, although it’s not where I started. Cyber security is such a fast-moving sector, with problem solving is at its heart, and the fact that good cyber security practices help protect us as individuals and businesses is a bonus. I began to notice the lack of women in the sector as my career progressed and set up the Women in Cyber network in 2018 to try and address the issues that women face, as well as to celebrate and amplify the many brilliant women working in the sector.

How did you get into the technology sector?

My dad bought a ZX81 when they were first released, and as a young child (really, young……….) I taught myself how to programme. I recall writing simple programmes that I tested on my parents – things like ‘What is your date of birth’… followed by ‘Wow, you’re really old’ that taught me logic, syntax and structure. I went on to create simple games, and whilst debugging code was time consuming and frustrating, it taught me many skills that I still draw on today. 

I was also a keen musician though, and took music with computing at university, dropping computing after a year to concentrate on musical composition. I never quite shook off technology though, and in my first permanent job, at a carer’s charity, I supported staff who had new computers and didn’t know how to use them, something I thrived on. When I left there after having my first child, I spent many hours reverse engineering HTML on the Internet to learn how websites were constructed and went to evening classes to learn Java. It was a natural progression into teaching IT and Computing from there, and after a winding route from community education, through to further education and then higher education, I finally ended up heading up the cyber security teaching team at a university. In 2022, after 20 years in education, I left academia to join ITSUS, where I now practice what I once preached (amongst other things!).

Why do you think there are still so few females in the technology sector?

There is still a lot of unconscious bias in the tech sector. People understand that diversity is a good thing (as well as being the right thing), but there is a deep cultural bias that still exists. Girls feel this as they go through school, parents and teachers amplify it, and the cycle continues into industry. Perceptions of careers in tech are improving, but there is still some way to go before the huge breadth of opportunities is widely known. This understanding of the sector, by careers staff and teachers will be a massive step in inspiring girls into tech careers.

We don’t think it’s any secret that many women in the tech industry have felt their gender has affected the way that they are perceived or treated. Have you ever been in a situation like that? How did you handle it?

This question always makes me pause and reflect. Asking me to talk about a particular situation where I’ve felt that my gender has affected the way I’ve been treated is too specific, because the problem is much more subtle than this. Do I feel like the opportunities would have been different if I’d been a man? Undoubtedly. Do I feel that sometimes my opinion isn’t sought or listened to because I’m a woman? Absolutely. But it can be difficult to address these issues when they are so subtle, without appearing over-sensitive or paranoid. It’s something I still struggle with, although age brings with it the benefit of caring less about what people think and being more confident in challenging these biases.

And how do you think we can achieve a more diverse future in tech?  

We really need to call out lack of diversity when we see it. It’s possible to do this in a supportive, non-confrontational way, and I think this can be most effective, but I appreciate that not everyone will feel comfortable doing so, including myself in some situations. I also think our allies play a very important part in this. A boardroom full of men can be an intimidating place for a woman to be, so men that encourage women to speak and take an active part can really help. I also think that management teams need to take responsibility for improving gender diversity. It’s not good enough to say ‘we just can’t recruit any women’, they need to make themselves accountable, set targets and measure change. And workplaces need to focus on inclusivity, not just diversity, as this helps hugely with retention.

What advice would you pass on to other women to help them progress in this industry?

Grow your networks. Networks are the building blocks of relationships, which in turn opens opportunities for mentoring, coaching, work experience and ultimately new roles. Surround yourself with people who have a ‘can do’ attitude, and who will support you in your endeavours. And be authentic. There is nothing worse than having to show up to work pretending to be something you’re not. Find out what gets you out of the bed in the morning and look for a role where you can do that, with people who respect and value you. The tech sector is a wonderful, exciting, and fascinating place to be now. Why wouldn’t you want to work here?

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