Smash the Ceiling: Achieving Gender Diversity in Asia-Pacific’s Cybersecurity Sector

Claire Li, Talent Sourcing Lead, JAPAC

Claire Li

Just as women were making real strides in the workplace around the globe — earning more equitable salaries, obtaining more executive-level positions, and comprising a larger share of the workforce than they had before — the pandemic came along and set us back decades. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report in 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic has added nearly three decades to the length of time it expects before gender parity is reached in the workforce.

Among the many impacts of lockdowns is the fact that women who had previously worked outside the home returned home, either because the sectors employing mostly women were affected by business closures or because they were forced to oversee the majority of care and schooling for their children.

However, even before the pandemic, roughly 50% of women in tech were leaving the industry before the age of 35, due to a noninclusive culture and the lack of work-life balance. In the cybersecurity industry, this problem is particularly acute. According to Linkedin Talent Insights, as of March 2021, women only made up 26% of the workforce in Singapore — that’s not great until you compare it to the rest of the world, with only 17%.

Taking the example of Singapore, historically we have had significantly fewer female students who would enroll in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors at a tertiary level, resulting in a smaller talent supply from the very top of the funnel. This combined with the social perception of Asian society that women have assumed responsibilities to their families results in even fewer women pursuing and sustaining careers in cybersecurity. Another common myth in more traditional societies, such as India and Japan, is that women must choose between family and career at some point in time, but this is actually not true — family and career are not mutually exclusive, and we can lean more to either side depending on the circumstances. 

Palo Alto Networks’ People Team has developed strategies that have enabled us to make considerable progress in hiring more women, which includes changing our understanding of “qualified talent,” utilizing more inclusive hiring practices, and placing greater emphasis on support of women employees.

Purple Unicorns

There is a tendency among tech companies to think of formally trained, experienced, diverse talent as purple or rainbow unicorns — the elusive creatures all are seeking and rarely find. Many laugh about it as if it’s impossible, an external reason that prevents gender-diverse hiring. Hiring managers looking for diverse candidates are seeking perfection, someone who checks all the boxes. But this cannot be the only method for hiring. When women only comprise about one-quarter of the world’s tech workforce and only about 28% of STEM college programs, it’s unrealistic to expect to find significant numbers of women with formal training and professional experience for these roles. It’s essential that organizations approach this differently. 

Instead, we must consider interested candidates with potential as well. We must identify women with an aptitude and a desire to work in the industry. We must stop investing all our energy in unicorns.

Inclusive Decision-Making in the Hiring Process

So how do you gauge potential in a female candidate? How do you ensure you’re hiring the right candidate if she doesn’t “check all the boxes”? Hiring doesn’t have to be a matter of formal training with a college degree in a STEM subject. Recruitment professionals should turn to more competency-based hiring programs that identify candidates’ core competencies as a measure of potential success. 

These might include leadership, decision-making, interpersonal communications, entrepreneurial thinking, collaboration, or even technical aptitude. But they may also identify work styles and personal qualities that help determine that person’s fit within an organization. Our Talent Acquisition team has begun to incorporate our competency-based License to Hire Program that examines capabilities such as motivation, intellectual capabilities, and interpersonal skills such as collaboration and communication. It also examines whether a candidate demonstrates our company’s core values of integrity, disruption, collaboration, inclusion, and execution. Here at Palo Alto Networks, we operate with the belief that much of the actual technical work and understanding of our products can be taught on the job — but leadership skills, innovative thinking, and the ability to work well on cross-functional teams are perhaps more important and much harder to teach. 

Developing from Within

Another avenue to find great women talent is by looking at the internal pool. It’s tempting sometimes for busy hiring managers or even recruiters to hire the best person from the applicant pool who has come right to you, simply to save time, rather than to proactively recruit from within. Doing so often takes a bit more effort as it requires evaluating where a current employee is and what she might be capable of doing next. Yet we’ve found that the success of this approach is well worth the extra time. For example, if we’re looking for someone to fill a management position in which the manager would lead a team of 10 across a regional area, rather than simply identifying someone who can make a lateral move, a realistic solution might be that we look for an existing employee with similar experience in that field who already manages a small team or leads cross-regional projects in a similar vein.

Last year we revamped our Internal Mobility program and also launched a company-wide mentoring platform, hoping to cultivate a vibrant mentoring culture that encourages young professionals to succeed and provides the support they need to pursue their careers of choice. This works in a reciprocal fashion: Not only do management-and executive-level mentors frequently tap newer talent for promotions based on their assessments of talent, but younger, newer employees are encouraged to share their career aspirations, which frequently leads to internal mobility opportunities. At Palo Alto Networks, more than 40% of internal applicants have successfully transferred to new roles, and about one in three management positions have been filled by internal employees.

What We Can Do as a Community of Women in Tech

As a talent sourcer, I’m often seen as the face of Palo Alto Networks for potential recruits. I’ve found this is valuable, as women often need to see themselves reflected in the tech workplace, to see that it isn’t just a “boys’ club.” Creating more opportunities for female employees to reach out and connect with female candidates can be quite powerful.

But you don’t have to be a recruiter to contribute to a more gender-diverse workplace. Women can and should support other women. We often see men going out after work to grab drinks, which can translate to networking opportunities. Women, due to family obligations, don’t tend to do this as often. But community support is so important to ensuring women feel comfortable in the workplace. To this end, Palo Alto Networks offers Employee Network Groups (ENGs), which are affinity groups for diverse populations that enable similar employees to connect. Our Women’s Network Group fills such a role, with a mission to create a community where women connect and grow together. Its activities include Lean In Circles, where women come together in a club-type meeting to share and learn from each other regarding their professional goals;  speaker series, where we feature successful women leaders and connect them with those who are looking for role models; career talks, in which we highlight the various roles in the company (which might not always be technical), and more. 

It takes the whole village to raise a child. Human resources, businesses, and communities must work hand in hand to close the gender gap. Of course, what’s more important is that women ourselves should have aspirations, look for role models, and actively network with each other. With more thoughtful approaches to viewing, hiring, and supporting talent, we can achieve a more gender-diverse cybersecurity industry in the Asia-Pacific region.