M. Revathy Sriram, Ph.D., CISA, CRISC, CISM, CGEIT, CFE, DISA, DMA (ICA), FCA, FCMA, FCS, is managing director of Tejas Brainware Systems Private Limited, Chennai, India (www.tejasbrainware.com), an organization dedicated to consultancy services in the area of information systems security assurance. She has been in the technology industry for 55 years and is considered a trailblazer in her home country of India and in the tech field. Currently, Sriram is a senior chartered accountant with extensive experience and academic qualifications in the area of computer security. She is also a published author of 2 books, Systems Audit and Core Banking Solution: Evaluation of Security and Controls. She is the recipient of the Lifetime Contribution Award as a Distinguished Founder – Member of ISACA Chennai (India) Chapter and here she shares some of her experiences and what she has learned over a long, storied career.
Q: What barriers have you overcome over the course of your career in technology?
A: In 1964, I, a woman, was selected by a large UK organization from a pool of candidates who presented stiff competition to undergo a 6-week training and join the organization’s new computer department. After my selection, the men who were not selected felt that I was only selected because the director in charge, preferred women. I was never given credit for my performance or was declared the best candidate.
I was the first woman officer at the organization. When I first visited the factory, security thought I had made a mistake. They thought I must have intended to go to the head office. Once they realized my being at the factory wasn’t a mistake, I could sense the doubt of how a woman would manage the systems at the office and factory, let alone understand the nuances of technology and business process.
Within a very short amount of time, I was made systems manager, the second in command. Many around me gravely doubted that a female chartered accountant, who was not a qualified computer systems manager by trade, could manage the position.
In addition to those gender-related challenges, we had no Internet, so communication was much slower. Software was delivered by air and supporting documents would travel over sea.
All of these challenges I faced at the outset of my career set the groundwork for my appreciation of the importance of technology controls. My curiosity and interest in these controls has continued to grow. I have come long way since I started. I earned a Ph.D. to expand my knowledge of audit and systems controls. I also now never miss a chance to provide faculty support and organize programs all over India to educate others about systems audit.
Q: As you have progressed through your career, how have mentors and networking impacted your journey? Have they helped further your career?
A: Networking helped me a great deal. It allowed me to turn a curiosity into a passion and to learn more about information security audit.
When I started, I realized there was a lack of awareness organizationally about the importance of systems audit. I started to mentor others by delivering lectures on information security to the Institute of Chartered Accountants at various regional chapter events. These lectures helped create visibility of the subject matter and more professional bodies started to appreciate my authority on the subject.
I also am proud to say I helped found the ISACA® Chennai (India) Chapter, the very first ISACA chapter in India. As more chapters have been founded throughout India, we at the Chennai Chapter have helped them grow. Initially, these new chapter members would visit Chennai to take the Certified Information Systems Auditor® (CISA®) exam. Through these and other opportunities, ISACA has been my biggest networking tool.
Q: What skills did you need to develop to become a leader in a male-dominated industry?
A: It is necessary to possess a deep knowledge of the subject and constantly update that knowledge base as well. Being a leader means you must be able develop a good team. This includes giving the team opportunities to grow. When a team is allowed to grow, it also helps attract new potential candidates who are searching for the same opportunity.
In my case, the systems manager position was assigned to me. It was well known throughout the organization what our team was capable of and management responded accordingly. We could handle complicated projects, so they entrusted us with responsibility. Initially, in systems audit assignments, the head of IT resisted letting us do our work. I have experienced heads of IT often feel that they are the lead of their area of operations and no one else can evaluate their controls well. It was a real shock to have a female chartered accountant assigned to audit their system.
After an initial round of discussions and highlighting of certain serious security concerns, not only did IT respect our work and advice, they also invited us to investigate more of their controls and report back accordingly.
Q: What challenges do you see women face in the technology industry today vs. when you started? How are the challenges the same and how are they different?
A: Women today still face some of the same challenges I encountered when I started in the industry. Women are expected to stand out and portray leadership qualities such as being assertive without being abrasive and must keep up with the latest changes in technology.
Women today also face new challenges including increased competition and unpredictable work hours. Organizations are more global today and span many time zones, which is an issue we did not face in the past. I used to work late some days and start early some others at the start of my career, but it was an exception rather than the norm. With the ability to work from home now, it is sometimes difficult to turn work off once you have arrived home.
Q: What do you think organizations can and should do to address retention issues for technology professionals, especially women?
A: Women in the technology field are often equally qualified to their male counterparts, sometimes more so.
Women in technology should be treated as a valuable commodity. Security and safety of women, indeed, of all employees, is of utmost importance.
Organizations are also increasingly providing work-from-home and opportunities and flexible schedules when possible.
Both ensuring women’s safety and providing them with opportunities to work from home can increase the retention of women in technology. Additionally, organizations need to ensure that an employee can rejoin the organization after they take leave for family-related matters.
Q: Have you seen progress in retaining women in the technology field over the course of your career?
A: Yes, as career opportunities grow, women are also more attracted to the technology field.
Compared to when I started in tech in 1964, the number of women in the field has increased tremendously. It seems women job hop less than men, increasing their value to the organization.
However, organizations have been reluctant historically to offer women key positions in the enterprise due to a notion that women have more domestic duties. If women need to attend to family matters, it is hard for them to dedicate themselves 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
There are some exceptions, but it still seems there is a glass ceiling with which women must contend.
Q: What progress do you see legislatively or culturally in your country or region toward addressing the gender gap in tech?
A: Legislatively, India has instituted laws to promote job opportunities for women. Culturally, there is greater acceptance of women in all fields including the army, navy and space research.
In the technology field, there has been a significant increase in the number of women becoming highly qualified. Since the world is dominated by the Internet, this ensures that there are many opportunities for women to work.
However, long work hours, tight time schedules and time zone differences do not attract people to the industry. Women’s domestic responsibilities and personal preferences can make working at odd hours to combat security issues unattractive to some women, and management often hesitates to place women in such positions. While the tide has shifted, this has not wholly changed.