My dad was an engineer and brought home a VIC-20 (early computer) for my sister and I to play games on when we were young. I wasn’t intimidated by computers, but I wasn’t that interested in them either. It was just another toy. Working in IT wasn’t really considered a professional career back then – it was all about being a teacher, a doctor or a lawyer.
I never wanted to be in IT really. I was interested in architecture, but there was a housing slump in the 80s and my family pointed out that it might not be a viable career. I was good at maths and enjoyed it, so I thought that studying maths at University would give me more options for the future.
I really enjoyed my maths degree and considered training to be a teacher after University. I also fancied doing a Masters in something interesting, and when I came across a course in Human Computer Interaction it really intrigued me. I liked the psychology of it, plus by that point computers and the internet were starting to become a bigger deal. I liked the challenge of a new field and learning what computers could do for us.
I applied for GCHQ to be a mathematician but the exam and interview were so hard I didn’t get the job! I hadn’t heard of GCHQ until a professor mentioned it, and when I read about it sounded really cool. At the interview, the GCHQ representatives noticed my Masters topic and suggested I join the IT department instead. I stayed with the organisation for 15 years.
There was only one other female in a class of 50 when I did my Masters, but it never bothered me. I was nervous about not knowing anyone, but not nervous about being the only girl. At GCHQ the gender balance was better, and they were committed to trying to encourage more women into the industry. I was often used during recruitment to inspire females to join us.
I never saw gender stereotypes as a handicap. I had strong male role models growing up but was proud of how much my Dad did around the home. He didn’t think cleaning and cooking were ‘women’s work’ and I assumed we could all be whatever we wanted, regardless of our gender.
I have never been discriminated against due to my gender in a professional environment. There was also no difficulty when I had my son but wanted to maintain my career. I have been able to reduce my hours and drop days to make it easier to manage the school run, but I am still Head of Information Security at Nominet. Now that my son is older (he is 9), he understands what I do and thinks it’s cool, especially after he saw me on the BBC!
Part of the gender imbalance problem could be due to computers being seen as toys for boys, not girls. There needs to be a cultural change to avoid girls thinking that working in IT is boring and a ‘boys thing’ to do. I recently did a talk at a secondary school to try and inspire girls ahead of them choosing their GCSE options. After I’d been, 12 girls signed up to study Computer Science – the previous year they’d only had 4!
My advice to girls considering a career in IT would be to look at the many opportunities that are available now. The roles available are so broad – it’s not just about programming. Yes, there are technical elements, but so many jobs within IT and cyber are about the human involvement and interaction, which is fascinating. It’s the new frontier and an exciting, fulfilling industry to work within.