Can remote working help solve IT skills shortage and gender imbalance?

Closing skills gaps and improving gender diversity throughout the IT industry have both proved major challenges for many years, but does the cultural shift towards remote working caused by COVID-19 offer a golden opportunity to redress the balance?

IDGConnect_remotework_diversity_skills_shutterstock_1687380997_1200x600
Shutterstock

This is a contributed article by Samantha Humphries, Senior Security Strategist at Exabeam.

 

The IT industry has been in the throes of a global skills shortage for a painfully long time. Nowhere is this more keenly felt than in small to medium sized businesses, many of whom regularly struggle to find and retain well trained employees for their security teams. Such a predicament causes numerous problems, ranging from poor security posture and operational issues, to difficulties with implementing digital transformation initiatives that are desperately needed to remain competitive in the modern marketplace.

There are many reasons behind this skills shortage, but one that comes up time and time again is the lack of women working in IT. A recent study by WISE found that women make up just 16% of the global tech workforce, with little growth in the last ten years. Looking at cybersecurity specifically, Exabeam’s own annual Cybersecurity Survey revealed that just 21% of respondents self-identified as women. With so few women currently working in the sector, it’s little wonder there’s such a struggle to fill the growing number of open positions.

However, the ongoing pandemic may offer an unlikely opportunity to finally redress this balance. The combination of strict lockdowns and social distancing has forced the majority of businesses to rapidly adopt remote working policies that were previously dismissed as untenable and unmanageable. However, if nothing else, the last ten months have shown that not only is remote working a viable long-term strategy, it can actually save businesses time and money, as well as making employees happier. Even more importantly, it’s helping to break down many of the traditional barriers to recruitment, fundamentally changing the rules of the game.

Building a diverse workforce

The cybersecurity industry desperately needs to ramp up its efforts to attract more women into roles at every level, from those just starting out in their careers to established professionals with many years of experience. For instance, a big issue many women face when returning to work after a period of absence (such as maternity leave or family care commitments) is job flexibility. Whereas women in other sectors can initially opt to return part time or work from home until they get back up to speed, these kinds of opportunities have been notoriously lacking in the IT and cybersecurity industries. As a result, many women simply choose to change career paths to one that can better accommodate their need to juggle work and personal commitments.

However, thanks to the fundamental shift in attitudes brought on by the pandemic, there’s suddenly much greater scope to utilise remote working technology and other great initiatives to help retain these skilled workers more effectively.  

Not new, but still rarely seen in the cybersecurity industry are Return To Work programmes. Such programmes were first conceived by larger organisations as a way to ease women back into their roles after having a baby. However, they were so successful that they quickly got expanded to anyone returning to work after a career break of some sort. They typically combine flexible working options with a range of support, from skills refreshers and mentorships to additional training and access to relevant online communities. While these kinds of official programmes are still mostly limited to larger enterprises, smaller organisations can learn a huge amount from them, making their own workplaces more attractive and eventually implementing similar initiatives of their own.

The hidden value of existing skills

Another group that can help solve recruitment challenges are existing employees with transferable skills. There’s a growing trend, for example, for cybersecurity professionals to cross-train from other areas of IT, such as customer helpdesk roles. Cybersecurity and customer helpdesk may seem like strange bedfellows at first. However, the helpful and creative mindset that works well for help desk employees, as well as the IT knowledge they bring, provides a great foundation for a career in security. It’s incumbent on the industry to ensure that these opportunities are presented equally to everyone, irrespective of gender and where they are on their personal career path.

Remote working removes geographical constraints

With remote working set to become a key component of most operational strategies for the long-term future, organisations suddenly have a golden opportunity to diversify their workforce by recruiting new talent from anywhere in the world. When you remove the constraints of proximity to a physical workplace, the pool of potential talent increases exponentially. Diverse teams can also think more creatively and offer fresh perspectives that make a huge difference in a crowded marketplace.

Benjamin Franklin once said, “out of adversity comes opportunity” and the COVID-19 pandemic is a true example of this. Despite the enormous challenges created, the fundamental shift in working culture around the world has suddenly placed much emphasis on work-life balance, flexibility and employee happiness. For women who already work, have previously worked, or are considering working in IT and/or cybersecurity, this is a watershed moment, opening up exciting new opportunities that were previously unviable or undesirable. For the IT industry as a whole, it may just be the long-awaited solution to its much-maligned skills shortage. Only time will tell.

Samantha Humphries has been happily entrenched in the cybersecurity industry for over 20 years and is currently is Senior Security Strategist at Exabeam. She has helped hundreds of organisations of all shapes, sizes, and geographies recover and learn from cyberattacks, defined strategy for pioneering security products and technologies, and is a regular speaker at security conferences around the world.