Meeting the Bletchley women – an honour and an inspiration

22nd October 2013

Think of the work of Bletchley Park and you might come up with names such as Alan Turing, Albert ‘Dilly’ Knox and Tommy Flowers. However, the majority of staff at Bletchley Park during the war were actually women and their roles were crucial to the work of breaking the German Enigma codes and building the first programmable electronic computer ‘Colossus’.

This historic connection made Bletchley Park the perfect venue for the ‘Women in security, today, then, tomorrow’ event, which I attended a couple of weeks ago. The event was organised by two organisations close to my heart who both aim to encourage more people to work in the cyber security sector; the Cyber Security Challenge UK and The Women’s Security Society.

It was a huge honour to meet three of the ladies who worked there during the Second World War. I loved a quote recited at the event from Albert ‘Dilly’ Knox; “Give me a Rock and a Lever and I can accomplish anything”. He was referring to Margaret Rock and Mavis Lever who worked for him. Margaret was described as “the fourth or fifth best of the whole Enigma staff and quite as useful as some of the professors,” yet was only ever referred to as a ‘linguist’, never a code breaker.

Bletchley Park is an excellent place to visit to learn more about its crucial role in the Second World War. The week before I was there, filming for the new movie ‘The Imitation Game’ had just finished. I’m really looking forward to seeing the film where Benedict Cumberbach plays the celebrated yet tragic mathematician Alan Turing. (His work was largely credited for breaking the Enigma codes yet he was later prosecuted for homosexuality).

During the event, reflections on the present situation for women in cyber security showed that less than 10% of the workforce is currently female. Baroness Neville-Jones highlighted the opportunities in cyber security for women and explained that “there’s a great career here with status and recognition across broad swathes of society”. She called on the audience to promote these opportunities to our sisters!

It was inspiring to be surrounded by current leaders in the industry such as Dr Brooke Hoskins, a Director at Raytheon who sponsored the event, and Natalie Black, the Deputy Director of Cyber Defence at the Cabinet Office.  Dr Hoskins spoke about the sector not being able to afford missing out on the diversity of talent and encouraged women currently involved in the profession to spread the word and consider mentoring. The event wouldn’t have been complete however without the future of women in Cyber Security, represented by Lucy Robson who won one of the first competitions of the Cyber Security Challenge.

Many agreed that one of the hardest challenges we face is inspiring those of school age to enter into the broader field of IT. Nominet’s own study showed that girls view the career path as technical male-dominated and are uninspired by the subject at school, while Lucy Robson and Brooke Hoskins both talked about the huge variety of skills required in cyber security, not just male geeks looking at code.

I can certainly agree with that as my role as Head of Information Security at Nominet can be extremely varied. One day I may be looking at the security implications of the new gTLD programme and the next I may be reviewing our internal policy regarding BYOD (bring your own device). Being fairly technical does help but there are a lot of other skills that are useful too, such as training, understanding business processes, psychology and law. One of the most important skills is that of translator so you can explain security risks in a way that isn’t always full of techno jargon!