The relatively new privacy industry has so far been immune to the gender bias that permeates many other fields, according to data from the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP).

While sexism continues to be a problem across many related professions — consider the lack of women on boards, the sexist courtroom dialog, and Silicon Valley’s gender bias, the privacy field appears to be a rare beacon of gender equity.

The IAPP proudly declares, based on its 2015 IAPP Salary and Governance Survey, that “Women and men who are coming into the privacy profession can be confident that they’ll find a modern and balanced workforce and that they’ll be rewarded for their experience and expertise, not their chromosome count.”

How did the privacy field become such a paragon of parity? And is there a risk the field will lose its gender balance as it evolves?

What makes privacy a unique field

Privacy professionals are responsible for providing strategic advice to organizations on privacy issues. They may also develop a company’s privacy strategy, analyze privacy regulations, respond to data incidents, monitor and measure privacy compliance and enforcement, perform privacy risk assessments and data inventories, and numerous other related duties.

The most recent survey by IAPP shows that women are equally represented and compensated in the privacy field. First, survey respondents were a 50-50 split between women and men, indicating a more even gender ratio. Second, the reported median salaries for privacy professionals are equal between men and women. Third, women are as likely as men to hold leadership positions in the field.

“There is something about the multidisciplinary nature of privacy that appeals to women. We don’t see [different disciplines intersecting to that same extent] in technology or law,” explained Hilary M. Wandall, chair of the IAPP board and a privacy professional of 15 years. She partially credits the field’s reputation. “Personally, I always believed that it was possible to balance family and a challenging and continually evolving career in privacy and I think many privacy professionals – men or women – share this belief. And that is one of many reasons we see parity in privacy.”

But Lauren Dubick, Chief Privacy Officer and General Counsel at Magnetic, believes that women may be thriving in privacy because of the field’s relatively young age. “There is no need to break into a male-dominated network,” Dubick said.

Annie C. Bai, Data Protection Officer at SwissRe, agrees. “It is a relatively new field, so there are no historic inequities to perpetuate. The field has developed in tandem with the parity issue,” she said.

Wandall adds that women were essential partners in the inception of privacy. “There were no preconceived notion of success in privacy. Women and men defined it together,” she explained.

Bai also credits the overall culture of the field. “Clients are more modern, especially tech companies, and less prone to ‘traditional’ viewpoints on compensation,” she said. “And it helps that many leading, high profile privacy professionals are women. They command high fees and it sets expectations about the worth of other female privacy professionals.”

Lauren Segal, General Counsel at Phoenix Technologies, also attributes parity in privacy to flexibility. “While a complex issue, some recent studies have suggested that jobs with the highest pay and with less work-time flexibility have the greatest pay gap,” she said. “It may be that privacy professionals have historically enjoyed more flexibility.”

Will this parity hold over the next five to 10 years?

What can we expect to see as the field matures, becomes more technical, and receives more attention? “Privacy was not seen as an exciting field to be in. I suspect that years ago women volunteered more often than men did to cover privacy matters and over time they became specialists in that field,” said Nadine Stocklin, startup advisor and privacy specialist. “I was certainly one of these women. Work flexibility may have been another reason. I have worked with and met several women privacy specialists who have, or had in the past, flexible work schedules. I think that some specialist areas like privacy have historically been more accommodating to flexible schedules, which may have been another draw for women.”

Wandall also explained that early privacy work was primarily policy-, compliance- and legal-related. “This, however, changed in the past eight years. Since the proliferation of data, connected devices, and data science around 2007 and 2008, privacy has become increasingly technical and quantitative in nature. We are no longer asked to focus on drafting policies and contracts. Instead, we evaluate emerging technologies, high volumes of disparate data sets, and objectively assess risks as well as ethical implications. The privacy field moved from primarily qualitative to more quantitative risk-benefit analysis, prioritization, and prediction.”

Veronica Abreu, Associate General Counsel at Airbnb and privacy and cybersecurity specialist, agrees. “To do privacy well and get traction with business, privacy professionals must be technical. It is now expected that privacy professionals learn technology, understand algorithms, and have a comprehensive knowledge of the back end,” she said. “I am on the core cyber security team at Airbnb. Part of my job is to understand in great depth our technology, how hackers work, and the inside and out of various attack vectors and ways to defend against them. Certainly, you can no longer be a technophobic privacy professional these days. In fact, any effective privacy professional must be able understand technology deeply to fluently converse with the engineering team.”

Sarah Feingold, General Counsel and Privacy Specialist at Vroom, believes we’ll see the proportion of women drop as the field becomes increasingly technical. “Women chose, or were pushed, into ‘soft sciences.’ And privacy has been a natural step from this practice,” she said.

Public perception of the field may also affect parity. “Up until relatively recently, privacy was not the sexy, high-profile discipline that it has become today. It has recently become front and center due to technology development, high profile breaches, and developments abroad,” Abreu said.

And Inna Barmash, General Counsel at Amplify, told me, “When I look around at some of the most prominent scholars and law firm partners in the privacy world, the picture is less egalitarian. So the really interesting study would be to see whether the parity between men/women in privacy persists at the very high echelons of prominent scholars, heads of think tanks, and major law firm practice heads.”

As privacy receives even more attention in today’s data-focused age, the industry may perceive and laud more men as leaders, leading to a culture shift.

The information security field, which is related to the privacy field, doesn’t provide a very optimistic model for how gender equality in the field may play out long-term. According to International Information System Security Certification Consortium (ISC)2’s most recent Global Information Security Workforce Study, “women in the information security profession represent 10% of the workforce – a percentage that is unchanged from two years ago.” Furthermore, (ISC)2 reports, “the proportion of women to men has been stubbornly stagnant. The number of women in information security employment is growing, but only at the rate of growth equal to that of the profession as a whole.”

Could the privacy workforce radically shift to match that of security as the field becomes increasingly more technical, important, and high profile?

“Although statistics show an equal playing field in privacy, there is still a lot of work to be done,” Fatima Khan, cofounder and Head of Partnerships and Publications at Women in Security and Privacy, told me. “Privacy professionals work across industries and professions, both technical and non-technical, and women still face gender inequality, or haven’t reached gender parity, within many of these professions.”

Can the field’s legacy of valuing women and avoiding historical inequities prevent it from absorbing the male-dominated culture of other industries? Or will the shift in prominence and perception dethrone privacy as a paragon of parity?

Privacy professionals like Khan are determined to preserve gender equity in their field. “Groups like Women in Security and Privacy help maintain higher gender parity levels where they exist and aim to introduce more women into the pipeline for professions not up to par,” she said. For now, the privacy field is still a striking example of a profession that gets gender equity right. Time will tell if it will remain that way – although, in the meantime, it certainly appears that many privacy professionals, certainly the ones quoted here, are intent on pushing for more parity across other fields, especially tech.

Olga V. Mack (@OlgaVMack) is a startup lawyer who enjoys advising her clients to success and growth. Currently Head of Legal at ClearSlide, a San Francisco-based startup, she previously worked at Zoosk, Visa, Pacific Art League of Palo Alto, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, and Yahoo.

Lourdes M. Turrecha is a privacy program leader and a lawyer at Arent Fox.

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