Jisc is a Bristol-based membership organisation for the UK’s universities, colleges and skills training organisations.
It provides them with big-ticket shared digital infrastructure, including this country’s national research and education network, which is one of the busiest in Europe and serves 18m users. It’s called the Janet Network and it is super-fast, reliable, secure and built to handle the huge volumes of traffic that education and research organisations generate.
Jisc provides many other shared services, including data centres so that researchers can store their data and share it securely with others. It also negotiates cost-effective deals and preferential service levels with commercial suppliers and offers advice and training on many different topics.
It’s just the kind of place that you’d expect to find stuffed with men who took the traditional science, technology, engineering, maths (STEM) sort of route into work. But now Jisc has launched a programme to make sure it’s a great place to work for women, as well as for everyone with skills and talents to offer but who don’t necessarily fit the into the typical techy mould.
Meet Frances Burton, fashion and textile designer turned cyber security expert. Frances is a security services manager, based at Jisc’s security operations centre in Harwell, Oxfordshire.
One of three women security specialists in her team of 24 people (there are also a couple of women working in non-technical jobs), she says that her ability to touch-type was enough to launch her into a career in IT.
How long have you been in the role?
I’ve been in Jisc’s cyber security division since 2017, but I’ve been with the organisation for about ten and a half years in all. My first job here was in research, I moved for a while into customer engagement and then found myself in security in 2015. We set up the dedicated security operations centre last year, and here I am!
Tell us about your career path
I went to college to train as a fashion and textiles designer but in those days they didn’t really bother to help you explore the kinds of jobs you might be qualified for, and I left with very little idea of what do next. So I got a job as an office junior at the Atomic Energy Authority (AEA). At that time the AEA had one of the first text-based databases and I got the job of demonstrating it purely because I could touch-type.
As it turned out, I had an aptitude for the technology and so I grabbed the opportunity and became an operator. I then went on to get involved with other business systems and IT services. When I had my daughter I had a bit of a break from work and started an Open University degree in information and communication technology (ICT). Later, I got a job in a school to fit in with her school hours and then progressed to working with Jisc authentication services.
Since then, I’ve kept an eye open for opportunities and taken them whenever they looked promising. I’ve been lucky – people have always been supportive and believed in me.
Is a male-dominated environment intimidating for talented women?
It’s certainly true that there are still more men than women on my team, but I’ve never found it intimidating and I’ve never experienced any prejudice. To be honest, I’ve never felt at a disadvantage in any of the predominantly male environments I’ve worked in. Perhaps I just don’t notice it – my parents raised us to think of ourselves as people not just boys or girls, and to believe that we could achieve whatever we wanted if we were willing to work at it.
Being the only woman can even have its advantages. I’m often the only one in a project team and it does mean that you don’t face a queue for the loo.
What would attract more women into technical roles?
I think that the education system needs an overhaul. These days kids have to start choosing a direction quite early on and it can really limit their options later. We know that boys are more likely than girls to pick STEM subjects at an early age and this sets boys and girls on different paths.
I chose arty subjects like many girls, but back then it was pretty easy for me to switch direction. I think it would be a lot trickier now and this means that employers can lose out on some great talent.
I do think that the world is waking up to this problem. The Cyber Security Challenge is trying to create a more diverse pipeline of talent to work in cyber security, which is highly promising. And at Jisc we’re taking steps to cast our net more widely to attract talent from the widest possible pool.
That means, for example, placing job ads in different media, wording them differently and being less prescriptive about the skills we’re looking for. Technical skills can always be taught to promising candidates who have aptitude and a range of other useful skills that transfer into this environment. Their different perspectives may well give us fresh ways of looking at problems.
We’re very keen to recruit more women and we have our first female cyber security degree apprentice, Nicole. We’re making her training as broad as we possibly can so that she has freedom to make choices about her career progression.
Lastly, what’s your favourite quote?
It’s one from Dolly Parton. Someone asked her how she gets her hair to look as it does. Her answer? “I don’t know, I’m never there.”
And there you were, thinking I’d say something worthy about women working in a man’s world.
Thanks Frances, and the team at Jisc