Fighting for diversity from the NCSC frontline

Created:  16 Jul 2017
Updated:  16 Jul 2017
Meet five women leading the way for diversity within the NCSC.

The National Cyber Security Centre is proud to be knocking down barriers that have prevented women from prospering in the technological field. Emma W, Emma G, Helen L, Rachel C and Susan A are five females who are leading the fight from the NCSC frontline.

The diversity statistics in science and technology are unacceptable. The Frost and Sullivan report this year estimated that for every woman working in cyber security globally, you will find nine men. Around 40 per cent of women leave jobs in science in technology, twice the figure for men, and that one third cite the working environment as central to their decision.

As our CEO Ciaran Martin said; “This is scandalous”, and leaves a huge talent pool of untapped talent.

The NCSC recognises that women have a huge role to play in our objective of making the UK the safest place to live and work online. That’s why half of our senior management are female, and why they are determined to improve on the overall figure of one third of NCSC staff being women.

But what is the experience of women working at the NCSC? Here are five accounts of women who are thriving in the National Cyber Security Centre…

Rachel’s story

Rachel C is a sociotechnical security researcher who worked for GCHQ for 9 years before moving to the NCSC in 2015. 

She has built on her former post as treasurer of the GCHQ women in technology network (WiTTY) to bring in inspiring external speakers and highlighting internal success stories to provide positive role models.

“The tech industry is getting more diverse, but at the NCSC we have said it would have diversity from the very start. All the seniors bought into that immediately, and when you have support from the highest level it definitely filters through an organisation.

“We organise for female tech speakers to talk about success stories – the events are open to everyone and we always get good feedback.

“The speakers are very inspiring - I’ve been approached by younger women who say they stayed with the organisation because of it.

A popular initiative WiTTY helped to organise was placing prominent posters all around the GCHQ’s Cheltenham headquarters highlighting the achievements of around 100 female staff.

“The posters were a really helpful tool to highlight success stories within the department. They were a colleague’s idea and included a photo and hand-written description of what that person had achieved – it was really inspiring to see so many different stories.

“We look to highlight success stories and I’m also on the NCSC inclusion and diversity committee, which includes support for ethnic diversity, LGBT, and disabled staff.

“One of the things we try to do is make sure that events we take part in are not just filled with one demographic – we want to see everybody represented on stage.”


Emma G’s story

One of the success stories promoted in the Cheltenham posters initiative was Emma G - the NCSC’s operations chief analyst.

Emma G joined GCHQ seven years ago, coming out as transgender in 2015 whilst taking up a new role in the NCSC.

“The support from the NCSC and the people have both been fantastic. It’s helped make my transition a lot smoother than I had ever expected.

“Before I came out I was afraid it would affect things – that the work culture wouldn’t be accepting, or that I’d simply not be allowed to keep working for the intelligence services.

“I was worried about the impact on my job, that I’d have to move onto something else – for me it was a complete unknown as to what would happen and it felt like a huge risk. Thankfully all of my worries failed to materialise entirely.”

Emma has also been supporting other staff who are transgender, along with their teams and management.

“I came out in a public way at work so I’ve been very open and visible about it from the start, and that’s helped other people come forward. Some have wanted to understand things better and others are setting out on their own journeys.

“They want that help and support to go forward, and we have a very positive atmosphere to help that to happen.”

Another life-changing event that many women fear could have a negative impact on their career is becoming a mother. The NCSC is committed to helping mothers return to work – for example with new initiatives to improve mentoring and support for women returning to technological roles.


Susan A’s story

Susan is one of two female Technical Directors in the NCSC – compared to 12 males. She achieved the senior position after transitioning to a part-time working pattern after becoming a mother.

Susan had worked in the commercial sector before joining GCHQ 14 years ago, and credits the move with helping her to settle down and raise a family while working 25 hours per week.

“As with many women in technological careers, the career path I had until my early 30s was utterly incompatible with having a family. In my previous job, I wouldn’t have chosen to have children.

“There is such a great support here culturally to work in different ways. My managers and colleagues have contributed to a culture where I have been able to achieve extraordinary things while being fully involved in family life.

“I was aware of the culture here, because I had some insight of it as a contractor. It’s one of the things that attracted me and it’s been the reason I stayed.

Susan has had set up groups that will help to improve a balance of gender, diverse backgrounds and supportive culture through the Socio-technical Security Group and NCSC’s first academic Research Institute (RI), which pioneers new ways of working collaboratively with the academic community.

“RI is the biggest achievement of my career. It is very striking how many female academics we have in our community, and how many of those work naturally across many disciplines, which is a rare and precious thing.

“The even tougher problem is how we achieve gender diversity within senior leadership positions, and support for alternative working patterns is critical to this.

“Challenging stereotypes is a big part of what we do – questioning what a technical person looks like. I mentored a female apprentice who said she felt out of place because everyone was male and they lived and breathed tech in their private lives.

“That’s not representative of the talent that is out there, so we are challenging that stereotype.

“It’s massively important that an organisation supports its tech women. When we’re in a minority peer-wise, and we are being compared peer-wise with those not taking on those responsibilities. Thankfully we have a good culture in the NCSC and people support the push for greater diversity.”


Emma W’s story

Emma is a living example of the diverse pool of talent NCSC recruits. She has taken a roaming path to leading NCSC’s People Centred Security, via 15 years with GCHQ in intelligence analysis, security and learning and development – all after completing a Philosophy degree.

“When I was doing my Philosophy degree 20 years ago, I had no thoughts in my mind about a career in cyber security.

“On my degree it was around half male and half female, but culturally most of the people working in GCHQ have come from technical backgrounds – which has been more male in the past.

“I’ve had a long and twisty career path, but the thread is working with people. We need all different types of people and there might be a place for you in cyber security no matter your background - I’m living proof.

“I’m passionate about my career path into cyber security being as valid as any – getting away from the fear that you have to have a fully technical background is an unnecessary mental barrier.

“Cyber security will benefit when a variety of professionals from different environments, such as across government, the wider public sector, industry and academia, connect and pull in the same direction and make a difference.”

Emma W also balances her high-flying career with being a mother, with flexible working to help her and her husband look after their six- and three-year-old children.

“I took maternity leave, but I really enjoy work so looked forward to getting back. Since coming back to work I have had very flexible shifts, and technology has also been helpful.

“When you would have had to travel around the country, increasingly we’re using video teleconferencing. That means I’m able to be in meetings without travelling far away from the family.

“We are doing so much to encourage more women into the profession, such as CyberFirst Girls. More than 8,000 teenage girls entered, so we know it’s not really the pipeline that’s the problem – it’s retaining women in the profession.

“The NCSC is here to tackle all the hard problems in cyber security. This is a really hard cyber security problem, but we’re up for the challenge.”


Helen L’s story

Another female who has seen first-hand the benefit of flexible working is Helen L – who leads the NCSC’s Engineering Processes & Assurance research team.

Helen has noted that a diverse range of people – and not just mothers – have benefited from the NCSC’s flexible working patterns.

“Traditionally it’s been quite hard to hold down this kind of career when you have children or have other interests that take up a lot of your time.

“But flexible working benefits everyone – not just mothers. One colleague I worked with made use of annualised hours for a few years, so he could teach diving during the summer.”

Helen has been able to combine her previous experience while working for the NCSC, and also raising her two children.

Before joining the NCSC, having completed a degree in Physics, Helen worked in another government department as a technical analyst, then for the Insolvency Service in the Directors’ Disqualification Unit – not only developing skills in accounting and company law, but also her ability to interact effectively with all kinds of people.

“As family life loomed I had a good think about my career. I considered teaching, but yearned to return to my scientific roots.

“I joined a hardware research team in GCHQ in 2009 and it has worked out really well – I lead the Engineering Processes and Assurance team in the Sociotechnical Security Group, bringing together technical knowledge with my fascination with making peoples’ lives better.

“The flexible working has helped me progress my career while looking after my two children. At first I worked three days per week - now four, sometimes five - but in the holidays it’s more like two days a week.”

The NCSC is proud of the work its women are doing, but recognises that more still needs to be done to remove barriers in the fields of science and technology.

To recruit, we will work with the private sector to provide first-job placements for female science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) graduates.  We will be launching a competition for mixed research teams to provide solutions to difficult practical and abstract cyber security problems.

To retain, the NCSC will pioneer a ‘cyber code of conduct’ to ensure women working in the field feel respected and equal. We also have plans to partner with the new TechUK Returners Hub, to ensure women returning to technological roles after a career break receive mentoring and sponsorship.

Finally, and perhaps most excitingly, our annual cyber security summit ‘CyberUK 2018’ will this year have a theme of women in cyber security.

Alison Whitney, Deputy Director for Digital Government

Alison Whitney, the deputy director for digital services at the NCSC, said:

“Having worked in cyber security for over a decade I would recommend it to any woman hoping to make a positive impact on the world.

“As the leading technical authority on cyber issues, we want to do everything we can to break down any barriers preventing them from prospering in their career.

“The good news is there is a huge interest amongst young women – as shown by more than 8,000 teenage girls entering our CyberFirst Girls competition.

Off the back of CyberUK 2017, the NCSC's technical director Ian Levy discussed improving diversity within cyber security and you can read that blog here.

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