Karen Sandhu, CISA, CRISC, is a professional with 15 years of risk management experience in information security, data privacy, emerging technology risk, cloud security, security incident response, governance and internal controls. She is passionate about raising awareness and closing the gender gap of women in IT and cybersecurity roles. Accordingly, Sandhu acts as the director of diversity and inclusion for the ISACA® Vancouver (Canada) Chapter and leads the SheLeadsTech Vancouver program. Here she shares some of her experiences advocating for woman in tech.
Q: What is one of the biggest obstacles you have faced while raising awareness about the lack of women in IT and cybersecurity roles?
A: Finding enough leaders and influencers to address this global problem. In Vancouver, a really tight security community exists, but it lacks diversity. Many conference organizers were called out because of the lack of female speakers at IT and cybersecurity conferences. Women attendees were the ones to voice concern. Since launching SheLeadsTech in October 2018, the ISACA Vancouver Chapter program has gained momentum in raising awareness and calling for this change. This increase in awareness is in part due to the SheLeadsTech Vancouver panels at BC Aware day, where panelists spoke about their careers in cybersecurity, the challenges they have faced, the advice they had for others and their biggest accomplishments, and at BSides Vancouver, where panelists talked about building alliances and finding allies. The chapter’s SheLeadsTech program also organized a Cybersecurity for Youth session led by a well-respected security leader in Vancouver at BC Girl Guides Canada and spoke to and supported the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) (USA) Vancouver Student Showcase event. The SheLeadsTech program is doing its best to show organizations and the education sector how to close the gender gap, rather than simply raise awareness of it.
Q: What is one of the most important internal (of your own effort) factors that led you to take on an ISACA Vancouver Chapter board member role?
A: Being a leader is hard. You have good days and bad days, and sometimes you need a different perspective and you need to develop in different ways. I was looking for an opportunity to develop my leadership skills and to become more involved in the Vancouver community. When I saw the opportunity to serve, I took it. Taking on different challenges and working with individuals I had never met or worked with before (outside of my professional space) is a completely different experience. You work with different personalities and learn to adapt your style. If anything, the continued ISACA Vancouver Chapter board member role is shaping me to be a better leader. I have learned to appreciate others’ perspectives and how they push me to grow in new directions.
Q: What is the most important external (not of your own effort) factor that led to this role?
A: Quite a few factors led me to this role and I feel they are all equally important. Hearing the voices of some incredible women working in the tech industry and learning of their successes and challenges empowered me to advocate for change, encourage women to pursue the next steps in their careers or change careers, and elevate the role of women in the Greater Vancouver area.
Another factor was my curiosity about the current level of involvement of young girls in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). I found that within Canada, we are already failing the next generation. Studies have reported a lack of education given to children (kindergarten to grade 12) in STEM; that 33% of university degrees lack areas in IT, networking, cybersecurity and virtualization; that 30% of graduates who have studied computer science degrees do not have job-ready skills; and that 78% of young women rule out careers in cybersecurity.
These facts broke my heart and pushed me to ensure that the ISACA Vancouver Chapter focuses on the next generation of females in tech in several ways:
- At colleges and universities, focusing on increasing and promoting the study of IT and cybersecurity programs for women
- At primary and secondary schools, focusing on supporting and encouraging girls who enjoy STEM subjects and changing the mind-sets of those who feel that STEM subjects are for boys only
Q: What challenges do you see women face in being able to take on positions in tech?
A: Apart from the well-known ones (i.e., gender bias, lack of leadership support, not enough role models), I have noticed through conversations I have had that women tend to doubt themselves, either their technical skills or leadership skills, and believe they are not ready to take on certain positions. This is largely due to past negative professional experiences and a tendency to constantly compare themselves to others. Women need to find a way to hack their conscious and unconscious minds, and I believe that, as leaders, we all have roles to play to help women overcome these types of challenges. There is a famous quote from the first female and former US Secretary of State, Madeline Albright. She said, “There is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women.”I follow this mantra because studies have shown women who help other women are more successful.
Q: What challenges do you see organizations face as they look to hire more women in tech?
A: Trying to find women in tech. This is the hard part. Where do you find them? And, if you do find them, how do you plan to develop them so that they are successful? Another area that needs to be addressed is that although the organization’s leadership team might be in full support of hiring more women in tech, what about the rest of the organization’s culture? Does it embrace a truly diverse workforce? How many female leaders are there?
If organizations are reaching out to women for roles in tech, they should do so with purpose and be mindful that women may ask “Are you only reaching out to me to achieve your diversity and inclusion metrics? Or, are you reaching out to me because my skills and experience have interested you?”
Q: What do you think organizations can and should do to address retention issues for technology professionals, especially women?
A: If an organization is serious about retaining women in tech, it needs to demonstrate commitment and investment. A great way to start is to reach out to technology groups within the community. For example, a technical recruiter at Infoblox contacted me a few months ago to explore opportunities to collaborate with SheLeadsTech to support the Infoblox’s diversity and inclusion initiative. This resulted in an evening of networking sponsored by Infoblox and it was great to learn about the executives’ mandate to increase the representation of women in the workforce and actions Infoblox has put into place through the Women at Infoblox Network (W@IN).
Organizations can also create programs for women who aspire to be leaders within the organization. They can dedicate time and resources to develop the skills required to reach C-suite roles and present opportunities to shadow C-suite leaders. Additionally, organizations can become strategic partners with educational institutions to encourage educating the next generation of women in tech.
Q: Have you seen progress in retaining women in the technology field over the course of your career?
A: Unfortunately, no. I have seen too many employers drive women out of tech. It is only since the #MeToo movement amplified voices that organizations have begun to shift their actions. Even so, there is still much more that needs to be done. Organizations have to go beyond vocal commitments to diversity by developing and implementing clear business cases for change.
Q: What progress do you see legislatively or culturally in your region toward addressing the gap of women in tech?
As cited on the Government of Canada’s website, advancing gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls is a top priority. In Canada, the Employment Equity Act's purpose is to achieve equality in the workplace so that no person is denied employment opportunities or benefits for reasons unrelated to ability. In the fulfillment of that goal, the act seeks to correct the conditions of disadvantage in employment experienced by women, aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities. However, the progress toward addressing the gap of women in tech is slow.
More organizations are looking to address diversity and inclusion in the workplace and bring more women into tech, but how do they do that? There is not enough guidance to support these organizations toward achieving their goals.
Universities, colleges and schools need to do more to engage girls in STEM subjects to help address systemic barriers before women enter the workplace.