Cyber Work is Infosec’s weekly podcast featuring some of cybersecurity’s brightest minds. The show’s guests share their knowledge, expertise and personal stories with the goal of educating the listener on what life in cybersecurity is all about.
To shine a spotlight on diversity in the field, we’ve put together a series focusing on women who work in the trenches of cybersecurity. From newbies to industry veterans, the women in these interviews share valuable insights and advice for women (and their male colleagues!) working in the field.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at what the lessons they shared with us.
But first … statistics
The world of cybersecurity — and technology in general — has been a boy’s club for a long time. The number of women joining the field is much lower than men, and even fewer women stick around long enough to rise into leadership positions. Let’s look at some numbers:
- Women make up only 20% of the global cybersecurity workforce
- While that’s a significant increase since 2013, when the number was only 11%, there’s still a long way to go
- There’s a $5,000 salary gap between men and women in non-managerial cybersecurity roles
- 51% of women in cybersecurity have a master’s degree, while only 45% of men have one
- An additional 51% of women in cybersecurity have faced workplace discrimination
These numbers look better than they did a couple of years ago, but clearly we’ve still got a long way to go before we reach gender parity in cybersecurity. Statistics like these are helpful, but they can only teach us so much — to truly understand what it’s like to be a woman in the cybersecurity world, we need to hear from the women themselves.
What are your experiences as a woman in the cybersecurity industry?
The only woman at the table
Obviously there isn’t one cookie-cutter experience for women in tech, but there are certain common challenges that many women face. For industry veterans like Anu Yamunan, Liz Mann and Susan Morrow, one of their challenges was being the only woman in the room.
For many women, this can be an isolating experience. It’s hard to build rapport with colleagues if you don’t have common ground with them or feel like an outsider. It can also be confusing — Susan Morrow, head of research and development at Avoco Secure, was once the sole woman listening to a presentation loaded with rugby analogies that only made sense if you played the sport.
For some women in tech, there is a silver lining. Gloria Milton, a help desk manager at itSynergy and a woman of color, explains that she never let her identity hold her back. Instead, she embraces it as an asset. She’s able to see problems and challenges through a different lens than people of other backgrounds. That’s a great asset for connecting with customers!
What are some setbacks that you have been handed due to the constraints of a majority male-focused industry?
The imposter in the room
It’s common for women to experience something called “imposter syndrome” at the workplace. Despite the name, it’s not an actual clinical disorder; instead, it refers to crippling feelings of self-doubt or inadequacy. Many of our podcast guests brought up experiencing imposter syndrome personally or knowing coworkers who have.
“Thinking about tech — first of all, it seems really impenetrable,” explained Emily Miller, director of national security and critical infrastructure programs at Mocana. This is especially true for people who come from a non-tech background. Emily studied public policy and worked for the government before transitioning into the ICS side of cybersecurity. She explained it’s extremely common to feel like “an imposter” early in your career, particularly if you have a liberal arts background.
Susan Morrow explains that imposter syndrome is very real and that she experienced it early in her career: “When I was younger and coming into this industry, I just didn’t have the confidence and it felt like all these techy men who were talking about encryption all the time […] I’m not as good as they are. Really. And that’s exactly what went through my head: ‘I’m just not as good they are, I just need to hide, I don’t want to speak to anybody.’” She said it’s helpful to have someone who understands what that feels like and who can help you through it.
It’s easy to see how imposter syndrome can hurt someone’s career, but what may be less apparent is that it also hurts the whole company. Good ideas get passed up because someone may not be confident enough to present them or because they’re not taken seriously.
Female mentors are rare unicorns
Having a mentor you can learn from is crucial, but one misconception holding women back is the idea that their mentor must be female. In a field where there are statistically way fewer women, you may find yourself stuck with no mentor at all.
Instead, Liz Mann (who mentors many women personally) recommends finding someone you can look up to, regardless of their gender. She explains, “We’re doing our women a bit of a disservice if we tell them that they should seek out other women mentors […] because if we limit women to only women then by definition, we’re going to run out.” She’s also supportive of senior women in cybersecurity mentoring men, because it helps prepare them to be better mentors to women.
How do we get more women into cybersecurity?
Change the way we apply for jobs
An interesting tidbit that popped up again and again in these talks was a statistic regarding the way men apply for jobs versus how women apply. LinkedIn’s Gender Insight Report revealed that women will apply for jobs where they meet 100% of the requirements, while men are comfortable applying with only 60% of the requirements. To help balance the scales, Liz Mann encourages women to push themselves out of their comfort zones and approach job applications with the same “bravado” that men do.
Network with other women
Being the sole female or minority at a company can feel incredibly isolating. Many of the podcast guests recommended joining groups or clubs focused on women in tech. For many women, that means looking beyond the horizons of your company and going to meet-ups, hackathons and clubs.
If you live in an area where in-person meet-ups aren’t common, you can join similar groups on Facebook or LinkedIn to connect with like-minded women. Ruth-Gomel Kafri recommends joining Women In Tech!
Encourage girls to study STEM
Once upon a time, many of the women working in tech today were students in STEM programs. While you don’t necessarily need a STEM degree to get a job in cybersecurity, as shown by women like Emily Miller, it’s a popular jumping-off point. In fact, 74% of girls in middle school show an interest in computer science, according to Girls Who Code.
But something happens between childhood and college graduation that turns most of those young women away from STEM. Women graduate with only 18% of computer science degrees and go on to fill only 26% of computing jobs, according to the Women in Tech report by NCWIT.
Cybersecurity experts like Liz Mann believes that girls need positive exposure to STEM from a young age. She’s active with groups like GenHERation and Girls Who Code, both of which help young women explore careers in cybersecurity.
How can we achieve gender parity in the management/leadership levels?
Retention, retention, retention
There’s a lot of talk about tech companies recruiting more women and minorities, but what about retaining them?
So far, the stats don’t look great:
- Turnover rate for women in tech-sector jobs is 41% versus 17% for men
- 56% of women in tech leave their company mid-career
- Of the women who leave, 24% leave the tech-sector entirely, 20% take time off and 10% leave for a startup company
Tech companies are putting a lot of effort into recruitment, but retention is a totally different animal. Getting someone to sign up in the first place is a lot easier than getting them to stick around if they don’t have a positive experience with the company. Tech companies may have an easier time recruiting diverse candidates if those candidates can envision a clear, long-term future at the company.
Modernize the workplace
Companies with modern, people-focused workplaces have the best shot at recruiting and retaining diverse candidates, explains Emily Miller. She identifies the ability to work from home and schedule-flexibility when “life” happens as two big selling points.
Susan Morrow brought up that many jobs in the tech sector include travel for meetings with clients and conferences. Travel is tough for both men and women, but women may be hit particularly hard by it. “You need to have a very supportive partner to rise through the ranks,” she explains, especially if you have children or grandchildren.
- Women Represent 20 Percent Of The Global Cybersecurity Workforce In 2019, Cybercrime Magazine
- Fast Facts on Women in Cyber Security, Risk & Insurance
- The ugly truth behind why men are more likely to get noticed by job recruiters, according to new LinkedIn study, Make It
- Opening a gateway for girls to enter the computer field, Girls Who Code
- WOMEN IN TECH: THE FACTS, National Center for Women & Information Technology
- The State of Women in Tech 2019, DreamHost