Editor’s note: Pat Ryan’s wide-ranging career included serving as an analyst in the British intelligence community, partnering with her husband on an oil exploration consultancy specializing in underwater seismic operations and satellite imaging, setting up and running a non-profit that installed IT equipment and educational software into UK hospitals where children were being treated, and founding Cyber Girls First, which encourages girls in the UK to take up coding and cybersecurity. Ryan, who spoke last month at ISACA’s UK Chapters conference, recently visited with ISACA Now to share about her past experiences and current efforts to inspire girls in cybersecurity. The following is a transcript of the interview, edited for length and clarity:
ISACA Now: You have a unique and varied professional background. Which aspects of your career are you most proud of, and at what point did you become focused on cybersecurity?
I am most proud of my children and what they have achieved. I stayed at home until they went off to their chosen careers before returning to the workplace. This was extremely difficult, even though I had partnered with my husband to set up and run an oil exploration consultancy. That’s when I realized how impossible it was for women to return to work after a time away raising children or caring for elderly parents. It’s even more difficult these days.
ISACA Now: Given your background, what is your perspective on cybersecurity as a national security issue – what needs to occur in the UK and around the world for governments to better protect their citizens from cyberthreats?
We have not woken up to the intense threats we face as a nation from cyberattacks on our hospitals, banks, government, schools, companies and infrastructure. During 2018, at least two attempts were made to hack into our power grid and transport systems.
Women represent 51 percent of the population of the UK, yet only 12 percent of coding and cyber positions are taken by women. We are losing a large portion of the potential workforce. In school, girls have a preconceived notion about taking computer science (mostly derived from boys whose comments are under the general terminology that “Computers aren’t for girls.”). I had seen this when mixed classes come into the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park. In the UK, our National Curriculum is an advantage, where all schools use the same software packages. I noticed that the boys push the girls off the machines or take the iPads away from them. That was when I decided to set up a program across the UK where girls were on their own for a whole day.
ISACA Now: How and why did Cyber Girls First come about?
As mentioned earlier, I saw first-hand how girls were taking second-place in classes, when in fact they were extremely adept at coding and in using various pieces of equipment. Starting Cyber Girls First would have been almost impossible without the support of universities and companies such as J.P. Morgan, Field Fisher, pi-top Computing, SEARCH (IT Recruitment) and ISACA.
J.P. Morgan and pi-top helped from the start, and a year after starting the program, I no longer had to go out to sell it – companies, schools and universities are asking to be included, and after four years, it has moved into a new dimension.
ISACA Now: What were the main points you were looking to convey during your remarks at the ISACA UK and Ireland chapters event?
I wanted to explain to the mostly male audience exactly what problems are faced by girls and women in the workplace. It starts at school, continues into employment, and becomes even worse if a woman chooses to care for her children until they go to school. That could mean maybe seven or eight years out of employment. The way that technology is moving, even a year can be difficult for a return-worker, so seven or eight years could be daunting.
I pointed out that each time a woman takes time out to care for children or elderly parents, she returns to work in a lower position with no attention paid to their levels of experience in previous careers. They need to be given the confidence to take up re-training, and companies should re-think their employment rules relating to job-sharing and part-time working. Women who are given this support tend to remain in those companies, so employers would benefit from a stable workforce.
ISACA Now: What impression has your interactions with school-aged girls left you with about the future of women in the cybersecurity workforce?
Very positive. We concentrate on direct communication with the girls, finishing the day with a session of round-table talks with six girls to each table. They have a 15-minute session and move to another table. Throughout those two hours, the girls will have heard from banks, IT companies, lawyers, the local police on-line security people and Government employees. We have someone from GCHQ/NCSC who tells them about the work they do to keep Britain safe.
After an event at Cardiff University, I heard from a teacher that all 10 girls who had attended our event had signed up to take computer science as one of their chosen subjects. At our Field Fisher event in London, attended by (past board director) Michael Hughes from ISACA, I had an email from a parent who said that her daughter had run into the house and said: “I know now what I want to do.” This program is not a “Wouldn’t it be nice if…” It is essential to our future security.
ISACA Now: How can enterprises do a better job of appealing to prospective female technology practitioners?
The government has set aside millions for schools and organizations to come to grips with the lack of trained people, particularly women. They have also put further millions into teacher training on computer science. Businesses should invest in apprenticeships and re-training programs to attract graduates and women “returners” into these roles.
One girl told me that her parents had said that everything would be done by robots. I suggested she should think about who would design the robots; who would design the software to run them; who would repair them (until that’s done by robots as well). She hadn’t thought of that and decided to do computer science.