When Bankwest's female tech staff are told "girls don't hack", this is what they do...

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When Bankwest's female tech staff are told "girls don't hack", this is what they do...

Opinion: Attitudes towards women in IT security need to change for the better, argues Bankwest head of Everyday Banking, Lou Tovey.

Imagine being the only woman in the room and being told by an authority figure that you don’t belong.

It’s the kind of thing we might have expected a good few years ago at a men-only event at a golf club but what if this was the experience of a colleague at a conference who was told by a course leader that “girls don’t hack.”

I’ll explain further, but I also want to build a bit of context for these kinds of experiences that left me speechless when I first heard of them.

Barely a week goes by without an article appearing in a newspaper or a report running on TV news about the need for more skilled IT workers to enter the workforce today to maintain the digital economy of tomorrow.

All the prevailing research shows there’s an urgent need to create millions of skilled workers just to keep pace with demand.

Governments and the private sector are constantly looking to develop new initiatives to encourage more young people and even school children to take an interest in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects.

The importance of this is not lost on Bankwest and it’s not an exaggeration to say our future, like the future of many businesses, depends on our embracing a diversity of thought and solutions.

We’re a big supporter of the WA-based group Women in Tech, we have our own Women in IT network and attend numerous STEM education and women in tech-focused events, while we also hold girls-only CoderDojo and our women’s Code Orange sessions at our head offices in Perth.

That is why recent tales of my colleague’s experiences disappointed me and so many other members of the IT community in Australia.

A colleague, who works in our cyber security team, had put herself forward to take part in a hacking challenge – an area in which she knew relatively little about. It was a small group, in which she was the only woman.

Having listened to the challenge briefing and looking forward to getting involved in the ‘Man in the Middle’-based activity she was shocked – and hearteningly so were a large proportion of the other people present - to hear a course leader look directly at her and say: “Do you know what MITM stands for? ‘Man in the Middle’ - because girls don’t hack."

These types of quips might be fleeting and off-the-cuff, and may even be attempts at humour, but they certainly don’t support efforts to create an inclusive culture, and arguably go a long way towards destroying inclusion.

It takes courage to put yourself into a learning environment where you feel somewhat out of your depth – I recall those feelings myself from when I joined a coding workshop to broaden my experience. I applaud my female colleagues who show the same openness and willingness to learn new skills and I’m sorry when they experience such negativity.

I’m pleased to say though, that when my colleagues go public on these kinds of incidents, their associates and peers in the IT sector respond with overwhelmingly support.

At Bankwest we’re committed to doing what we can, within our sphere of influence, to work towards creating a society and a workplace where an individual is judged on their competence, not their gender, and we can leave preconceptions to the contrary as challenges of the past. 

In the interests of transparency on our Bankwest journey, we’ve published our gender equity metrics in our corporate responsibility report on the Bankwest website, so our progress – and the areas in which we want to improve – can be reviewed by our colleagues, customers and the community.

I sincerely believe most people have a genuine and deeply held commitment to advancing gender equality and promoting diversity and inclusion within our organisations and across the Australian corporate sector.

I encourage all of you to call out any unacceptable instances. Let’s continue to support and educate about the fantastic opportunities there are in IT.

Because, believe me: girls do hack.

Lou Tovey is head of Everyday Banking at Bankwest.

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