Bletchley and beyond: women at GCHQ

Last Updated: 15 Aug 2016
Sally, GCHQ’s Director Cyber and one of our Gender Diversity Champions, explains why a diverse workforce is crucial to our work to keep Britain safe, and how we are working to improve our recruitment and retention of women.

A recent press article about women in the intelligence agencies claimed that “GCHQ staff tend to be the ‘boffins’ the types that are technically brilliant at things like coding and encryption, but perhaps not brilliant at a party”.

Some people think that there’s no point applying to GCHQ unless you’re a techie whizzkid, a codebreaker or hacker, or an introvert who can understand a computer but finds people more difficult. We absolutely need those kinds of people, but that isn’t all we are looking for. The recent book The Debs of Bletchley Park showed that women have always led a key role in our community, but sadly the stereotype around our work means that men are more likely to apply to work here than women, despite GCHQ being one of the most flexible (and exciting) employers in the country.

I have had the privilege of working for GCHQ for over 20 years. I came here with a degree in Natural Sciences, but a passion for sport. My interest was in people, rather than computers, and my career has been in management, and national and international liaison rather than code breaking or hacking. I’ve had phenomenal roles and been to amazing places. I’ve worked in war zones in support of the military and ran GCHQ’s contribution to London 2012, to ensure a safe and secure Olympics. It’s been quite a journey.

Now as Director Cyber, I am responsible for a national programme that has strong links to the military and civilian worlds, and I work closely with some amazing people who have a huge range of skills from all kinds of disciplines. Over my career I have had children (and maternity leave), worked overseas, and gone from full-time to part-time to full-time again to accommodate various operational and domestic challenges, while gradually rising through the ranks to be one of five senior women at the Director level. 

GCHQ is world-famous for using its technical genius to keep Britain safe, going right back to the times of Bletchley Park and the World War II codebreakers who cracked Enigma. But did you know that we are also Britain’s biggest government employer of linguists? Or that many of our intelligence analysts come in with degrees in Arts subjects? Or that you can work at GCHQ as a Project Manager, in HR, as a lawyer, a vetting officer, in press and public relations, or in Finance?


Robert Hannigan, Director GCHQ since Nov 2014
©GCHQ 2014
“Dull uniformity would destroy us”

The value of having a diverse and inclusive workforce is now increasingly understood – people deliver their best when they’re appreciated and allowed to be themselves, no matter their background.

Management consultancy McKinsey have identified that the firms with the best gender and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above the average for their industry.  Although we’re not here to make money, the benefits of a more diverse and inclusive business culture can be felt here too, people who feel more included are more engaged, more productive, and more likely to speak up with their ideas or concerns. We know that as an organisation successfully reaching the widest pool of potential will help us meet the increasingly demanding challenges we face. As well as being the right thing to do there is a huge business imperative to get more women working at GCHQ.

As our Director Robert Hannigan said recently: “To do our job, which is solving some of the hardest technology problems the world faces for security reasons, we need all talents and we need people who dare to think differently and be different. We need different backgrounds, experiences, intellects, sexualities, because it is in mixing all of those together that you get the creativity and innovation we desperately need.

“As a technology-driven agency, we have to be a vibrant workplace and welcoming to all. Dull uniformity would destroy us.”

But we know we still have some way to go. Only 35% of the GCHQ workforce are female. So what are we doing to encourage more women to join?

We want to attract the best but that doesn’t mean you have to have a degree or be fresh from university. Mid-career applicants, for example, may have gained skills and experience by other, less conventional routes. We have started an apprentice scheme so that people can join straight from A-Levels. We are also doing more to attract mid-career women – for instance we have recently advertised on Mumsnet for the first time, and we’ve just launched our Twitter account and are using that to promote careers at GCHQ. These are big steps for a secret organisation.  We provide opportunities for joiners to train on the job and encourage staff with personal development programmes. All in all, we think we have something for everyone and a route in for everyone.

Internally we’ve worked hard to celebrate diversity and to make our workplace as welcoming as possible to our amazing staff, including thriving network groups. We offer flexible working opportunities with generous parental leave. We are working to ensure all jobs are designed to suit people working flexible hours or job-sharing – the Gender Champion role itself is job-shared!

STEM-ing the tide

And what about science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) skills, the backbone of GCHQ’s ongoing race to stay ahead of those seeking to do Britain harm?

Fewer girls than boys take STEM subjects at school, college and university. This means that when it comes to recruiting female engineers, mathematicians and cyber defenders, not just for GCHQ but across government and industry, we have a smaller pool to choose from. We therefore support both local and national initiatives designed to encourage more girls to study STEM subjects.

Our CyberFirst initiative, which is designed to identify and nurture young talent from a broad range of backgrounds, is one way we’re involved in this issue. The scheme started by providing sponsorship to study a relevant undergraduate degree but this year has widened to include residential summer programmes for schoolchildren and a specific girls-only competition and taster days for 14-15 year-olds.

On top of that we are running cyber summer schools where we pay people to study with us during university holidays – at last year’s school in Scarborough a third of participants were female. The summer school recruited by attitude and aptitude rather than by qualification, and as a result the proportion of female students on the course was high. Through training and support, all the students passed with flying colours – even those who never thought they could do a job related to tech. 

We also hosted a Women in Cyber careers event earlier this year, alongside other government departments. I spoke at the event in front of over 100 intelligent and enthusiastic young women and I was deeply impressed by the people I met. Many of them had relevant abilities that they were discounting – a common feature of talented women in all kinds of fields. One attendee said: “I’ve taught myself Python in my spare time – presumably I shouldn’t count that as coding experience”.

The future


GCHQ main building on left, road running around it with cars on
©GCHQ 2014

If we can bring more fantastic women into our work – be they apprentices, students, graduates, or career changers -  I know that we will be making the right kind of progress to do our job well, and that job is to continue keeping Britain safe. Meanwhile, we need to let more women know that GCHQ is the sort of workplace where they can thrive.