Women in technology – what is unconscious bias and why is it important?


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I started my career as a mechanical engineer and through an unexpected turn of events, landed up in cybersecurity.  Although this may sound impressive to some, and definitely makes for an interesting story, these two careers are very similar in a pretty uncomfortable way.  I may just be a sucker for punishment, but I essentially left one highly gender-exclusive field for another.

According to SWE, just 7% of mechanical engineers are women (compared with 14% in chemical engineering) and although a whopping 36% of computer systems analysts are women, just 11% of information security professionals are women. Out of all the technical fields I could have chosen, I chose these two zingers!

So why is this necessarily a bad thing?

This weekend, I had the honor of hosting a panel of amazing leaders in the information security field at the AusCERT conferences in Gold Coast, Australia. The topic was “Diversity and Women in Cybersecurity” – embracing diversity to close the growing skills gap facing the industry.

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Globally, women make up just 11% of the information security workforce and this percentage has not changed since 2011.  The stagnation of women’s participation in the workforce is particularly troubling as the gap between available and unfilled positions in cybersecurity is estimated to grow to 1.8 million by 2022. Attracting and retaining more women has the potential to shrink this, but only if they can be hired, trained and retained in sufficient numbers. Not only is diversity key in addressing the skills gap, but in a security landscape where attackers continue to outpace defenders, enriching problem-solving with a diversity of perspectives, could be pivotal in keeping up.

Women are starting ahead but quickly falling behind

The Global Information Security Workforce Study is conducted every 2 years by the Center for Cyber Safety and Education. The latest study conducted in September 2016 surveyed just under 20,000 male and female information security professionals from 170 countries worldwide.

The study found that women are entering the field with higher education levels than men. 51% of women vs. 45% of men enter with a master’s degree. Secondly, there is one women for every 6 men in non-managerial roles, but this drops to 1 in ten at the manager level. So women are coming to the field more educated, but quickly falling behind their male counterparts.

What is unconscious bias and why does it matter?

The study asked men and women about diversity and inclusion. 51% of women say they have experienced discrimination in the workplace, whilst only 15% of men reported experiencing discrimination. Of those women who said they had experienced this, here are the stats:

  • 87% experienced unconscious bias
  • 53% experienced unexplained denial/delay in career advancement
  • 29% said they’d had exaggerated highlighting of mistakes, errors or occurrences
  • 22% tokenism
  • 19% were victims of overt discrimination

Unconscious bias refers to a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.

Unconscious biases are a major contributing factor in women not being hired for jobs that are traditionally held by men, such as “manager”, for not being paid as much for doing the same work, for not being handed challenging assignments and for not achieving leadership roles at the same rates as men do.

A Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research found that managers are significantly more likely to critique female employees for coming on too strong, and their accomplishments are more likely than men’s to be seen as the result of team, rather than individual efforts. This is irrespective on whether the manager assessing the candidate is male or female.

  • Women received 2.5 times the amount of feedback men did about aggressive communication styles, with phrases such as “your speaking style is off-putting,”
  • Women had more than twice the references to team accomplishments, rather than individual achievements
  • Men also received three times as much feedback linked to a specific business outcome, and twice the number of references to their technical expertise.
  • Men’s reviews contained twice as many words related to assertiveness, independence and self-confidence—words like “drive,” “transform,” “innovate” and “tackle.”

Sheryl Sandburg said in Lean In, ““Aggressive and hard-charging women violate unwritten rules about acceptable social conduct. Men are continually applauded for being ambitious and powerful and successful, but women who display these same traits often pay a social penalty. Female accomplishments come at a cost.”

Ok, so that is one study. Is that enough to prove that unconscious bias exists?

A Yale study called “Constructed Criteria – Redefining Merit to Justify Discrimination” asked participants to evaluate male and female candidates for the traditionally male job of police chief. Candidates were rated based on 2 factors: education and streetwise characteristics. Although evaluators gave the candidates fair scores for how educated or how streetwise they were, when it came to selecting the candidate for the job, evaluators started doing a very strange thing. They assigned more weight to the characteristic that that male candidate had performed well on.

If the candidate was well-educated and media-savvy, the evaluator saw this as a critical quality for success in the role. But when the candidate was lacking in these qualities, these were suddenly not very important to the role. Evaluators were shaping the criteria to fit the candidate. Unfortunately, the female candidate was not show this favoritism. Male evaluators were shown to be more biased than female evaluators (although both were pretty biased).

What is even more interesting is that evaluators were then asked to rate themselves on how biased or objective they thought they were. The results are even more shocking.

Female evaluators who considered themselves more objective were, in fact, more objective. But male evaluators who considered themselves the most objective were actually the most biased! Among men, there was a clear inverse relationship between shaping evaluation criteria to fit an applicant, and how objective the evaluator though he was.


Wow, this is really an issue. What can organizations do about unconscious bias?

Its clear that unconscious biases are holding women and other minorities back from entering the employment market as a whole, and advancing in their careers. This effect is only amplified in high gender-exclusive technical fields where the echo-chamber is particularly strong.  As these fields are still dominated by a narrow demographic, it is far less likely for individuals and groups to be aware of their biases.

Some organizations however, are awakening to this and starting to not only realize the untapped potential in a diverse workforce, but are actively working to change their culture to embrace diversity far more purposefully than ever before.

My next blog will talk about some of the things organizations are doing to facilitate these programs and what individuals can do to become more aware of their own unconscious biases.

Mentorship vs. Sponsorship for career advancement


As mentioned in my last post, one of the most critical factors to achieving success in the workplace is finding sponsors – the right sponsors – who will open doors for you and actively support you as you grow. Malcolm Gladwell listed this as one of the 3 critical factors for meteoric success in his book, Outliers (along with 10,000 hours of hard work and a large spoonful of luck) and Sylvia Ann Hewitt wrote a whole book about it: Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor

Until lately, this was a pretty new concept for me. Looking back at my career thus far however, I can definitely see how sponsorship has shaped my path. Let me share a bit of what I’ve learned.

What is a sponsor, and what is a mentor?

A mentor is someone who gives advice. She/he is typically a person more senior than you, who has taken an interest in your development, growth and success and tries to guide you as you define and follow your journey, sharing experiences, knowledge and suggesting course-corrections. You can think of a mentor as someone who helps you passively.

A sponsor, however, is a senior person who actively helps you follow your journey (or leap-frog into a whole new journey you never even dreamed about). They would typically hand you a challenging assignment (giving you that chance to show off your fabulous skills and get noticed), connect you to an advantageous person or opportunity or flat out “bang the table for you” when you come up for a promotion or an assignment.

Why is this important?

I know that the engineer in every one of us believes that she/he should be valued primarily on the virtue of his/her work, but that simply is not the case.

Organizations are made up of people, and despite them being governed by policies, are in the end, just a bunch of human beings being human beings. At every level within an organization, irrespective of company culture, there are “politics” at play. People build networks around their interests, gravitating towards people they get along with and people that can/will help them in some way now or in the future. Little communities emerge at the water dispensers or on the weekends. As individuals in a community achieve greater success, they tend to start creating opportunities for others in that community to also succeed, keeping their “followers” close to them at every level.

Very clearly then, in order to get ahead, you need to be doing a lot more than just showing up to kick ass at your daily tasks!

The sponsorship cards are stacked against women

McKinsey & Co. teamed up with LeanIn.org to do some killer research on Women in the Workplace, and discovered some important – and unsettling – facts.

“Women are three times more likely to rely on a network that is mostly female. Because men typically hold more senior-level positions, this means women are less likely to get access to people with the clout to open doors for them.”




Although the number of senior women leaders in a typical US workplace is increasing, senior leadership is still largely dominated by men. This means that a woman is less likely to get access to senior level people who can really open doors for them. This effect deepens the more senior a woman becomes. 20170226_3 201702262


So what does all of this mean for you and I?

In the field of engineering, cybersecurity and others, where senior women are still very few and far between, women are even less likely to have access to senior women sponsors. In my last post I talked about how its a total misconception that women don’t sponsor each other. The truth is, they do! What we also need to start doing a lot more of, is actively seeking out male sponsors as well, with the ability to really open doors for us.

It also means that as we progress, we need to be acutely aware that younger women will be seeking us out as sponsors, and that we have the duty to create opportunities for them and connect them to a more balanced network of men and women.

My next post going to be on how to go about finding a sponsor. Stay tuned for more!


Next Generation Women 2017 – North America


McKinsey & Company invites female students and experienced professionals across North America to be inspired and make a difference!

McKinsey passionately believes in developing outstanding female leaders and promoting gender diversity, both at McKinsey and in the world at large. They invite you to take the next step of your own leadership journey by applying to join us for our Next Generation Women Leaders 2017 event, to be held June 15-17, 2017 outside of Washington, DC. 

Apply on the McKinsey Website here

Women in cybersecurity: building community and sponsorship

Its been a few years since I attended a “Women in Engineering” seminar and I must admit that I’ve felt quite disconnected from my original purpose for starting this blog. Having left engineering for consulting, and having made a major career change into IT Infrastructure and then into the adjacent field of cybersecurity, I found it impossible to craft and authentic post as a champion for women in engineering. What would I talk about? What life experience would I draw from?

Today however, my mission was reignited at the RSA conference in San Francisco. For the first time in RSA history, there was a diversity-focused session (finally RSA). I spent 3 hours hearing from prominent and inspiring women in my field, about the very real challenges they faced. And guess what? They were exactly the same issues I had experienced as a young mechanical engineering student, and later, a graduate working in mining in the rural regions of South Africa. Sure, the lingo and the working environments may be quite different, but the experience of being a smart, ambitious woman in a male-dominated and highly exclusive field was the same with this group.

Interestingly enough, the key take-away from today’s sessions was not the need for women to hone their negotiation skills, nor was it to encourage women to “lean in” and emulate more masculine-like qualities to get ahead (I write this despite my immense respect for Cheryl Sandburg and her organization). No, the one thing that the speakers listed consistently as the key to achieving success in your career is one, ironically, innate to us as women: building a support network, a community within which you can feel safe to speak up, reach out and be bold. The last speaker, Valerie Plume (former CIA agent and role-model for women) said that studies have shown that women are able to build higher levels of trust with others and are generally perceived as being far more trustworthy than men. A young speaker (herself still an intern) gave some fantastic advice to a concerned mother/cyber professional, saying that her daughter should take a friend along to robotics club (even one who had no interest in robotics) to help her feel more comfortable among the over-jealous (and quite possibly highly insecure) high school boys, dubbed the “arrogant geeks”. I could relate. After all, I have been surrounded by them since I was 17.

One woman complained that she had somehow fallen into the role of bridging divides in her team, and that people constantly brought her their issues with others to help them figure out. She wanted to know how to get out of this hole. Valerie however advised that she was in fact in a privileged position and that she should rather leverage that POWER and turn it into success. Having listened to Elaine Seat’s simply outstanding talk “Selling your Ideas in the Absence of Authority” a total of 3 times at various ASME events, I am completely with Valerie on this one! (Look out for another post on this topic). Simply put, women should be looking for OPPORTUNITIES use skills so fundamental to being women – the ability to build trust-based relationships – to their advantage in advancing themselves and others in their fields.

A theme that was touched on, yet not explored in a meaningful way (hint for next year, RSA!) was the idea of mentorship and sponsorship. A common misconception is that women don’t support each other. Recent research on this topic suggests this is true in cases of “token diversity positions”, where there is only one spot for a woman on the team (think early-90’s). This creates heightened competitiveness over the one seat at the table, inevitably resulting in any incumbent being treated with disdain. Once women (and this applies to other minority groups too) are confident that they are not competing for the only seat at the table, they do the complete opposite: they throw their support behind each other, even exhibiting the “mini-me” attributes that men have been using to bring their younger-selves along with them as they rise.

Sponsorship is a theme that I will be exploring in the next few blogs. I have been incredibly fortunate to have found mentors, and more importantly, sponsors throughout my career. I’d like to share some of my experiences, as well as hear from others on how they have succeeded in finding effective sponsors. Please reach out with your thoughts.

#RSAConference2017 #RSA #RSA2017 #womenincybersecurity #womeninsecurity #valerieplume


Lego getting it right again

I was getting myself a new Lego set today and came across some awesomeness.i think we need more of this positive female messaging for our girls! 

Introducing Batgirl! 

Good job Lego! Love the spirit of this super-hero toy set, where the main character is a woman. Love the pink! Thank you for making this wonderful learning toy identifiable to young women…


Simply Chic Design


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RegularWP8 visitors to my site may notice the new look and feel of the page. In recent months, I have struggled to find content to post. Since starting EngineerChic in 2010, I have always reflected so much of my own self through my writing but as I have grown and changed, so has writing style, priorities and taste. In order to stay true to who I am and seek inspiration for writing, I have decided to make a few changes that I hope you find Simply Chic!

I have also  finally secured the EngineerChic.com URL for the site – until now being held hostage.

 ** Yaay **

A recent business trip to Austria took me through Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. I have been to some beautiful architectural-masterpiece airports around the world – not least of all Denver and Dubai – but the CDG creation by architect Paul Andreu was more than chic – it was breathtaking!

cdg2While walking through Terminal 2, I marveled at the design of the interior. As an engineer who has worked in construction, I was amazed at the effortlessly smooth lines of curved concrete which encased the terminals – a subtle reminder of an airplane fuselage. This sweeping design features apertures in the side-walls, allowing in natural sunlight to balance the severe atmosphere created by the avant-garde design.

The execution of this masterful design came at a cost. In 2004, part of terminal 2E which had recently opened to travelers collapsed killing 4 people. It was found that some inconsistencies occurred in the construction of the concrete structure (preparation of concrete and inclusion of some steel work adding points of weakness) which undermined a design with an already low safety factor.

If you’re wondering about the inspiration of my site’s new look, CDG definitely played a big part! During my short layover, I had some time to deeply reflect on how to translate my older and wiser self into my long-standing blog, and the clean lines of beauty surrounding me reminded what it was about engineering that I loved in the first place – at its core, it is also art. For most of my career, I have had to struggle to balance my scientific and artistic selves – both demanding breathing space from me. In my unending quest to achieve balance in all things, architecture has always been a safe haven for me.


There is something distinctly feminine about architecture like this – so unusual in design

Everything about this airport merges functionality and art, from its expressionistic support beams to its use of natural light and shadow.

Don’t you just love how the planes look parked in gentle curves outside the terminals?

Female Engineers – Winning with the Velvet Glove


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So this blog and others like it have exhausted the facts and figured about women in engineering and how wonderful it all is for us to be there. I want to talk about something I’ve experienced that gave a new spin on why companies should hire and promote female engineers. Not all female engineers will agree to this but there is something to say about the inherent soft-skills that women possess and how this can be put to use to the advantage of the project team.

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One of the first female engineers in the South African construction industry told me that a female engineer should always be wearing a boxing glove on one hand, and a velvet glove on the other. Well most of my career thus far has involved me using the boxing glove, in recent months I’ve come to understand what the old bird meant about the velvet glove.

On my first project with my new company, I was eager to earn respect within the team as a project engineer.  Somewhere along the way, I started doing more Client-interfacing. I coordinated and accompanied the Clients team to site-visits, met with people to diffuse difficult situations and managed their (very long) wishlist of changes and corrections on the plant. The more I worked in this role, the more I liked it and the more my PM/ project sponsor assigned me to these tasks.

Was this hard engineering? No – really it wasn’t. The hard-engineering decisions were still taken between corresponding engineers on their team and ours. Yes, I missed the hard engineering of being on site and making things happen, and the pace and impact of project engineering. But there is a certain level of technical know-how required to interact with a technical Client’s team, that made it necessary for an engineer to do this. And somewhere along the way, I guess someone realised that I could be good at this.

Having a really large Client’s team (up-side of 20 individuals) it really was difficult to manage every request and expectation. I flew to the middle of the Northern Cape, as well as to Cape Town several times to meet with individuals and groups to ensure they were being personally attended to. I really put my heart into this as I could see its affect on the project and our image as a company. I find that so often, we forget the impact of the image we portray at a grass-roots level after a project is sold.

I left the Company before the project’s completion and before I did, I had many calls from members on our Client’s team to say goodbye and good luck. Although, truthfully, I probably did less for the project’s execution than any other engineer on the team, it was unbelievable to hear the feedback I received. Contemplating on it, I realise that this is something that maybe is missing from engineering consultancies. Balancing Client relationships with project progress is a PM function, but with the masses of time a PM has to spend on project execution, he/ she can’t also afford to take care of the requests and concerns of an entire Client team as well.

Female engineers are ideal for this role that requires charisma as well a technical prowess, professionalism and charm. Being  – for the most part – better communicators than men, less intimidating and more accommodating, women at the Client-interface can reshape the image of a company.  Women with good interpersonal skills can be trained to work at the apex of technical, project and social interactions – perfect for Client relationship-building in a technically-minded industry. Their unique set of skills tied to their femininity can be a great advantage to their careers and this should be leveraged by project managers and sponsors.

What makes engineering consulting different

Its been a while since I posted – readers will realise that my lull in posts has coincided with my move to Johannesburg and my starting a new job in engineering consulting.

The past 2.5 months at my new company have been a whirlwind of excitement. Being thrown into two projects in the midst of implementation was more challenging than I could have anticipated. Also, learning a new company’s way of operating and getting a feel of how to find and leverage the resources available always takes some time.



My new company is vastly different to my previous one: I now live in the city and take 5 minutes to get to work, as opposed to driving 65kms everyday to my project site. I work in a large, open-planned office with white walls dotted with brightly coloured panels. Colleagues bounce around on pilates balls at their desks and work flexible hours to beat the traffic. I have swapped out my pink hard-hat for a white one (still gonna try get my pink one back though) and have exchanged safety boots for elegant pencil skirts and heels.

The most interesting and different thing about my job however is that now I have a Client. It wasn’t 3 months ago when I was the Client! Sitting on the other side of the table is quite interesting. For one, I cant be the absolute brat that I am anymore. I really enjoyed being the end-user. Working for a huge multinational gives you the feeling that anything can be possible. Everything is just large – especially in capital projects and the suppliers and consultants that work for you know the value of a customer like that. As a consultant executing two projects for a large multinational, I realise how very difficult it sometimes can be on the receiving-end.

Saying that, it has allowed me to develop in areas I never had a chance to before. I am now very diplomatic about what I say and careful about how I say it. I am conscious about what I do and the quality and detail of my work is ever-more important. I cant say that I don’t enjoy it, in fact, I love it! Its a professional environment in which I am thriving.

The other side of the coin is that now I work even more closely with people than before. Coordinating activities between draughtsmen, engineers and project administrators is all about communication and relationship building. It requires a lot of energy though, and sometimes there is a bit of conflict – but I have come to enjoy a bit of conflict once in a while ;). Just to shake things up, you know?

All in all, everyone is different and are suited to different environments. Production and mining was great experience and something that has launched my career. I would definitely recommend that all engineers get this exposure a an early stage in their careers. However, consulting is very exciting and you get broader exposure to the industry as a whole. Some people start off in consulting and never leave. It may be stressful, but if you are a very driven individual who values professionalism and detail, I would recommend it to you!