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Opening Up Security

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As a woman working in government security I’ve got used to being the only female round the table in meetings. At CESG’s flagship security conference, IA14, I counted only four women out of 35 speakers, panelists and hosts. Whilst women make up just over 50 per cent of civil servants, only four central government departments have a female DSO. There are women working in security, but they are outnumbered by men, particularly at senior levels.

The security profession has a diversity problem. And in turn, this will create a security problem. It isn’t just an issue for me or other women in a security role – it’s a problem for all of us who want to build credible, capable security functions that protect and support our departments. A key part of a security team’s job is to engage with the organization, drive culture change and mobilise staff from all parts of the business to protect our information. So not only might we be missing out on talented, skilled individuals, but our lack of diversity may also make it more difficult for us to communicate with our colleagues in a way that’s meaningful for them.

The security threats we face aren’t reducing. They’re increasing, becoming more multi-faceted, complex and varied, whilst the old familiar threats remain. It’s because of the pace of change that we can’t afford to be cautious in our response. Bringing in a wider range of staff helps us to develop imaginative ways of managing risks and respond readily to emerging threats.

Why are there so few women in security?

I asked a selection of women in security roles. The feedback illustrated the difficulties of being taken seriously in a male-dominated environment and suggested a number of reasons for the unequal representation.

  • Security is seen as a macho area of work, associated with secret investigations, enforcement or guarding, where strength, endurance and willingness to work anti-social, inflexible shifts is expected. Working in security, even at senior levels, can sometimes feel like a competition of who can be toughest. This posturing may put women off or make it difficult to establish credibility amongst colleagues with a narrow view of the profession.
  • Security is also partly a technical profession, some roles requiring high levels of expertise in IT or cyber security. Women remain under-represented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines that may in turn impact on finding employment within a profession that emphasizes technical qualifications and experience.
  • Security tends to be a conservative function where change constitutes a threat to be guarded against. In this environment, male dominance becomes self-reinforcing as those in the profession seek to hire and promote staff with similar, familiar backgrounds, skills and qualifications.

How do we encourage more women into Security roles?

To build a diverse Security Profession will take concerted action, leadership and commitment – it won’t happen by itself and nor, do I believe, can we can rest on wider initiatives across the civil service to slowly filter into the security world. What we need to do includes:

  • Communicating the full breadth of Security as one of most interesting, varied and challenging parts of government to work in. Security isn’t just about “bombs and bollards” as one colleague described it. It’s about business change, staff behavior and attitudes, communication and engagement and balancing business risk.
  • Recognising that we need a broader skill set and encouraging staff to move in and out of the security function over the course of their career, as well as developing career paths within the profession. We need to attract people with skills in communication, training, project management, policy development and leadership. Technical skills and qualifications will always have an important role in any security team, but not everyone needs them to work in a security role.
  • Highlighting female role models and increasing the visibility of women who have succeeded in the security profession, both in and out of government. Women need to know that they can achieve success, progress and make a difference by working in security and build a network of contacts for mutual support.
  • Support flexible working where possible. Like the rest of government, most security roles can be delivered part time, with flexible working arrangements such as working from home and around outside responsibilities. Making the working environment demonstrably friendly to women wherever possible will encourage them without weakening our security.

To make government safer, to protect our people, information and buildings and encourage our colleagues to take greater care at work and on-line demands an agile, engaging and approachable Security Profession. One that attracts the best talent from across the civil service and beyond and that makes the most of what both men and women have to offer. Increasing the representation of women in security should be the aim of all senior security managers if we are serious about developing and building successful teams. The Cabinet Office recently launched the Talent Action Plan to ensure more women progress within the Civil Service – we need to adopt, champion and invest in similar approaches for the Security Profession.

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  1. Comment by Sam posted on

    Very well written Jessie.

    I work within the security arena and often find myself attending large meetings being the only woman in the room. That said I've never 'felt' discriminated against and have been fortunate to work alongside some really great people who have inspired me to excel in whatever I'm doing whilst being able to work flexibly. It's not always been easy though and I suppose my 'light bulb' moment was when I realised 'I' needed to adopt different styles for the people I worked with (that's both men and woman) to get the best out of my teams and most importantly I leant how to 'listen' and take on views of others before trying to get my point across. There is something to be said about personal responsibility - we all have the power to make changes, we just need to want to make it happen.

    On a personal level I would really like to see the introduction of professional security qualifications and visible career paths. By that I mean being able to identify where to take your career, how to move around and knowing what steps are available.

    • Replies to Sam>

      Comment by Jessie Owen posted on

      Thanks for your post Sam. There are still wider structural issues that impact on the number of women in the security profession and I think some of that is down to outdated perceptions about both the role of women and the role of security. Taking responsibility for our personal development is really important and career paths and professional development can be helpful. However it's not just down to individual women to get on in security, all managers have a responsibility to encourage diversity and create a culture where everyone can thrive and progress.

      • Replies to Jessie Owen>

        Comment by Jonathan Lloyd White posted on

        Thanks Sam and Jessie for the interesting discussion about women in the Security Profession. Any good Profession needs both men and women and security isn't any different. I fully agree with your points about needing professional security qualifications and visible career paths for people. In fact I see this as one of the key challenges in my role as Head of Profession. I want to set out a prospectus of courses that will cover all the different roles we've got in the Security Profession. If anyone who is currently in the Government Security Profession would like to input into this work, please get in touch with me directly or leave a comment on this blog. I'll also be blogging about how things progress, so keep checking back here if you want to know the latest.

  2. Comment by Kay Risby posted on

    Very interesting article Jessie - I'm going to include the actions into Jonathan's Security Profession Development Group (SPDG) action plan under the talent banner