Women in cybersecurity: Building diversity, accessibility and stronger teams
Roughly 2.8 million people work in cybersecurity today and women represent just 24% of that overall workforce, says the 2019 (ISC)2 Cybersecurity Workforce Report. In 2020, the pandemic forced 5% of women out of work — compared to a job loss rate of 3.9% for men, according to a new Oxfam International study — so the percentage of women in cybersecurity today may even be lower.
Any cybersecurity hiring manager will tell you finding and hiring cybersecurity talent is hard work. The talent pool simply isn’t large enough, which makes the cybersecurity skills gap a very real challenge. The latest estimates say another 4 million workers are needed as cybercrime continues to wage war on organizations of all types, across every geography.
Strategies to bring a more gender-diverse workforce to cybersecurity are one way to address the skills gap while also bringing a new perspective to the workplace at a time when fresh ideas are sorely needed to fight escalating cyberattacks. To that end, organizations are finding new and creative ways to bring more women into the field. Those that do are reaching new levels of success through the value women contribute.
Christina Van Houten is the author and founder of Women@Work, a resource platform dedicated to the economic advancement and self-reliance of women and girls around the world, and chief strategy officer for Mimecast. Like many other cyber professionals, she first fell into enterprise technology from an unrelated field. She then learned how to apply her broad technology expertise in product management, strategy and corporate development to cybersecurity. Today, she’s helping scores of other women do the same.
“There is a broader perspective from being involved in a lot of areas in enterprise software and that can bring real value to cyber,” Van Houten says.
The benefits of diversity in cybersecurity
An organization’s gender diversity matters beyond the moral and ethical obligation to employ both women and men; it also translates to the bottom line. According to McKinsey & Company, gender-diverse companies are 15% more likely to notice higher financial returns than their less gender-diverse competitors. The reasons for this outlined in the research include gender-diverse organizations are better able to win top talent and improve customer orientation, employee satisfaction and decision making.
In her role at Mimecast, Van Houten was first put in charge of several disparate teams that she then brought together. She immediately noticed there were very few women on any of the original teams. “It wasn’t anyone’s explicit decision to do that; it’s just how things had naturally evolved,” she said. She began bringing women in from the outside, but even more importantly, women already working for the company saw an opportunity to bring value in a new way to a company they wanted to stay with. They made lateral movements to join Van Houten’s team and expanded their careers accordingly.
“They’ve turned out to be rock stars and I couldn’t imagine where our business would be without them having evolved,” Van Houten said. “We’ve been able to do the things we needed to do in an extraordinary way because of that optimized portfolio of talent.”
Ideas for creating accessibility
How can companies proactively recruit and empower a gender-diverse workforce? Van Houten recommends first being programmatic about attracting smart, young college graduates who may not have studied computer science for roles that don’t require it. While this effort doesn’t have to be specific to women, it’s worth noting that since 2014, more women have attained four-year degrees than men.
By making a concerted effort to seek out graduates with backgrounds beyond engineering and adding interns brings dynamic new talent to the organization. Then, allow them to rotate around the company so they can explore and grow at your company — almost as if you’ve created a fellowship for them, Van Houten recommends. In this way, women with no cybersecurity experience can round out their skill set and then use their past experiences to deliver great value in cybersecurity.
Accommodating women during times when their personal lives get busier and more difficult like when they have young children at home, is also key to maintaining a more gender-diverse workforce. This could include formal programs like daycare support but also pathways for women to make lateral moves into roles that better accommodate their personal needs during those few years. If a sales position that requires a lot of travel is no longer a good fit for a mom of young kids, for example, a transition into product management could be a win-win for the employee and the company. The salesperson’s ability to engage people works well with building consensus among the company’s engineers as well as with required customer communication. It also allows her to travel less.
Cybersecurity scholarships for women are another way to foster gender diversity in the industry. The annual Infosec Accelerate Women in Cybersecurity Scholarship is one such opportunity for women who are pursuing careers in cybersecurity.
Lastly, having women in cybersecurity leadership roles keeps the company’s gender diversity wheel turning. “If women can see themselves in someone else, they are more apt to imagine and pursue something they wouldn’t otherwise do,” says Van Houten.
The payoff: Stronger teams
As the shift to a more gender balanced workforce starts to happen, the positive impact becomes apparent in a variety of areas, including the company’s bottom line. Perhaps even more importantly though are the benefits it brings to your employees. Varied perspective and teamwork drive the best results. Seeing that unfold is rewarding for everyone involved.
“Figuring out the magical combination of talents and personalities is so much fun, and so is seeing what that means for someone’s career,” Van Houten says. “I love watching teams feel good about achieving something great together.”
To learn more about supporting women in cybersecurity, watch the Cyber Work Podcast, Supporting economic advancement among women in cybersecurity.
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