Britain’s intelligence services want to increase the number of female coders in their ranks, warning they must improve diversity to tackle threats ranging from foreign states to children’s online safety.
GCHQ, Britain’s intelligence, security and cybersecurity agency, is funding 14-week “nano-degrees” in data and software to help women who may have previously been pushed back into coding to change careers. The agency celebrates the birthday of Ada Lovelace, the daughter of poet Lord Byron credited by some with writing the first computer program in the early 1840s. But in 2022, only a third of the agency’s staff are women, and fewer are in technology positions.
“We have worked hard to increase this number to have more diverse teams and better address the threats we need today,” said Jo Cavan, director of strategic policy and engagement at the agency, which has bases in Cheltenham, London and Manchester.
GCHQ’s missions include countering terrorism, serious and organized crime, countering hostile states, and cybersecurity. Cavan said counterterrorism mission teams that have improved their gender balance have performed better as a result.
“We don’t have the right mix of minds to deal with some of these threats,” Cavan said. “If you look at China, for example, and how technology is moving east and China is looking to impose non-Western values on technology, we have really important work to do there to make sure that we are at the forefront of training. these international technological standards and norms. It is therefore important to have a diverse team that examines these threats and the opportunities that arise from some of these technologies.
“We know that getting the right mix of minds will give us a competitive edge and that’s why we talk about workforce diversity as mission critical.”
The agency works with training organization Code First Girls, which also teaches women to code under agreements with security providers including BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce. Many of the program’s participants are women in their late 20s and early 30s who decide to pursue careers in tech, said Anna Brailsford, chief executive of Code First. A recent survey found that 80% of women who took the program said a career in tech was neither mentioned nor encouraged while in school.
Women remain significantly underrepresented in roles related to digital technology, accounting for just 18% of workers, according to the most recent data from the Office for National Statistics.
Brailsford said that with defense intelligence systems increasingly using artificial intelligence and machine learning to replicate human decision-making, the importance of reducing bias in the design of these systems is critical to gain a security advantage.
In a recent GCHQ article on the ethics of artificial intelligence, the agency states: “In using AI, we will strive to minimize and, where possible, eliminate bias, whether related to sex, race, class or religion. We know that individuals pioneering this technology are shaped by their own personal experiences and backgrounds. Recognizing this is only the first step – we need to go further and engage a diverse mix of minds to develop, apply and govern our use of AI.
“While we have seen changes in the right direction over the past few years, women are still very underrepresented in the tech and security/tech industry,” said Mivy James, Chief Transformation Officer digital at BAE Systems Digital Intelligence. “It is only through a diverse workforce that we can work more effectively, especially in the field of security, where skills such as creative problem solving are essential to adapt to changing landscapes. evolving threats.”