Top women officials say there’s more work to do on gender balance in government tech

CISA Director Jen Easterly, shown here at a February cyber conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, has made improving gender balance a key goal at her agency.

CISA Director Jen Easterly, shown here at a February cyber conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, has made improving gender balance a key goal at her agency. STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Women seem to be far more common in government’s top tech leadership positions than they used to be, but “we are far from done,” one such leader warns.

Women hold top tech and cyber positions in the Biden administration: Clare Martorana, federal CIO; Jen Easterly, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency; and Anne Neuberger, deputy national security advisor, among others. 

“We’ve made progress,” said Camille Stewart Gloster, deputy national cyber director for technology and ecosystem security in the Office of the National Cyber Director. But “there’s more work to be done.”

Women make up about 25% of federal IT management jobs as of Oct. 2023 — a stat that roughly tracks for women in cybersecurity overall — as compared to roughly 45% of the government workforce overall, according to OPM data. Women only represent 31% of the government’s STEM workforce.

As of fiscal 2019, only 25% of STEM leadership roles were occupied by women, according to a 2022 EEOC report using fiscal 2019 data.

“I've been in a lot of rooms for a really long time and mostly been the only woman,” Clare Martorana told Nextgov/FCW on the sidelines of an event earlier this month. 

The problem, the EEOC report notes, starts in schools, where women are less likely to pursue STEM majors than their male classmates.

Stereotypes that women and girls aren’t technical or aren’t interested in STEM, don’t help, said Stewart Gloster, nor do misunderstandings about the  cybersecurity field, which includes non-technical jobs, too.

Why a seat at the table is not enough

For those women that do pursue tech careers, many find gender bias waiting. A recent survey of women in STEM found that 73% reported gender bias in the last year, including in the form of salary, interactions with coworkers and professional advancement. Many women also have concerns about work-life balance, the lack of mentors in the field and more, the EEOC noted. 

“The lack of diversity is a symptom of the lack of inclusion,” said Lynn Dohm, executive director of Women in Cybersecurity, a nonprofit membership organization. It’s working on a study meant to quantify exclusion in cybersecurity. 

For women in cyber, the first source of exclusion reported was a lack of respect, followed by career growth and advancement. Women in cyber hit a glass ceiling at about six years, said Dohm. 

“You know the colloquial term, ‘Give me a seat at the table?’” said Kemba Walden, former acting national cyber director. “I find that I get a seat at the table, but the table is the wrong shape."

I've been in a lot of rooms for a really long time and mostly been the only woman.
Clare Martorana, Federal CIO

During her time at the White House, Walden said that she tried to make the workplace more inclusive by bringing her “full self” to work — including her identity as a parent. Morning meetings were after the kids had been taken to school, she said, and she encouraged others to take the space to be their full selves, too. 

Making strides at CISA

Elsewhere in the government, CISA is working to meet a goal Easterly set in 2022 to reach gender parity in the cybersecurity workforce by 2030. 

Women make up 38% of CISA’s own workforce, Easterly told Nextgov/FCW in a statement, “up nearly 2% since I issued that challenge.”

“We’ve been diligently working to accomplish this through targeted recruitment efforts, fostering inclusivity in our workplace culture, providing training and mentorship opportunities, and partnering with educational institutions and industry to encourage and support women pursuing careers in cybersecurity,” Easterly said.

Elizabeth Kolmstetter, CISA’s chief people officer, said that 39% of the agency’s workforce is remote — something that can be helpful for those with caregiving responsibilities — and 58% are on telework agreements.

Beyond CISA’s walls, the agency also has partnerships to field cybersecurity education and training models for teachers and expose girls and women to cyber with organizations like Girls Who Code and the Girl Scouts.

The Office of the National Cyber Director, meanwhile, has been pushing for the removal of college degrees from jobs, in addition to offering internships and apprenticeships, said Stewart Gloster. 

“It is essential that all of the perspectives that use the technology we seek to protect are reflected in the security apparatus and in the creation of technology,” she said. 

Ultimately, diversity makes teams better, said Walden.

“We’ve got the objective talents that everybody can get in the classroom. It’s that extra filter, that subjective, experience-laden filter, that adds the value,” she said. “The more diversity we have in that filter, the more creative, more productive and more effective the solutions are.”

Diversity matters

That goes for diversity beyond and among women, too, said Stewart Gloster.

“Oftentimes, especially in the tech space, white women or Asian women benefit most from the programs [for women in tech],” she said. “And until we think about women of color and their unique needs… we can miss people in the programs because those needs can be different.”

The 2022 EEOC report found that of the women in STEM in government, 66% were white; 14% were Black; 9% were Asian; and 6% were Hispanic or Latina. American Indian and Alaska Native and Hawaiian or Pacific Islander women made up less than 1% each.

As for how change happens, “we oftentimes always put the responsibility of advocating and educating for oneselves on the underrepresented individual,” said Dohm. “We need employers to take a little responsibility here.”

Dohm has a to-do list for employers looking to take that responsibility: pay attention, assess your workplace’s state of inclusion and make sure career advancement and growth opportunities are clear. 

Employers also need to address barriers — like a lack of access to childcare — that keep women from advancing or entering the field at all, said Stewart Gloster, saying that there’s a need for “wraparound services.” The EEOC has also urged federal employers to analyze what barriers hold women up in the workplace.

For now, many of the women that Nextgov/FCW spoke with expressed gratitude about the women in tech who paved the way for them.

“I’ve had nothing but incredible support from women leaders across government. It’s really inspired me, so I want to keep giving back in that way and pass the baton to the next people that are doing this work,” said Martorana. “We are far from done.”

NEXT STORY: NAPA's Terry Gerton to step down