How can we attract more women to careers in cybersecurity?

Welcome to Threat Intel’s #WednesdayWisdom column, a weekly read to help improve your cybersecurity knowledge and keep you informed on important developments.

Today is International Women’s Day, a global day to celebrate the achievements of women and call for gender parity in all walks of life around the world.

So, it is a fitting moment to consider the position of women in STEM and, in particular, cybersecurity.

Research carried out by the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) in the US in 2015 found that just one quarter of computing jobs were held by women. The disparity in cybersecurity is even more drastic, with a survey by ISC2 in 2015 finding that just one tenth of those working in cybersecurity were women.

That same survey also found pay inequalities, with 47 percent of men reporting salaries of $120,000, compared to 41 percent of women.

The underrepresentation of women in cybersecurity is significant for many reasons. Many studies show that gender diverse organizations perform better. However, the cybersecurity industry has a more immediate talent gap problem with the demand for cybersecurity talent expected to rise to six million globally by 2019.

Young women should be encouraged to pursue careers in STEM industries

Small improvements

While these figures show that we still clearly have a long way to go, the situation has been improving for women in STEM in recent years, with many companies and events making more of an effort to promote inclusivity and diversity in their organizations.

‘Booth babes’ — scantily clad women at tech conferences hired to entice people to visit a company’s exhibit — are now a relatively rare sight, with many conferences having banned such promotional models. Many tech conferences are also making more of an effort to ensure women are represented as speakers and panel members.

There are also many conferences with the specific aim of promoting diversity and inclusion of women in STEM, such as Inspirefest (which takes place in Dublin, Ireland), the Women in Tech Festival (in Mountain View, California), the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (in Orlando, Florida), and the Women of Silicon Roundabout (in London, England).

Many companies now also have initiatives in place to encourage and celebrate women’s participation in the industry, such as Symantec’s #iamtech initiative, which aims to explore the experiences of women and minorities in STEM.

Planning ahead

Girls should be encouraged to pursue their interests in technology

Looking to the future, cybersecurity needs to not only attract more women but also retain them and help them progress to leadership positions.

The NCWIT survey found that retention of women in STEM professions compared poorly with retention of women in non-STEM professions.

That is why initiatives like mentoring and providing the option of flexible working hours can be so important to help retain women in the industry.

Flexible working hours and the option to work from home can be especially important to women with children, and women often have children at a period of their lives where they are entering more senior positions in their careers. It is vital that cybersecurity companies — and organizations in general — have policies in place to ensure that women do not miss out on opportunities to further their careers after having children.

Mentoring is important both from the point of view of helping to retain women in the industry, and attracting them to a career in infosec.

“You can’t be what you can’t see” is an oft-cited quote, and the reality is that cybersecurity, and more broadly STEM, is dominated by men and male role models. This serves to discourage young women from seriously considering a career in STEM, which is why it is so important to put women in the industry to the forefront. This could be achieved by them appearing more frequently at conferences, using more female spokespeople, or by them taking part in mentoring programs within schools or universities.

In the US, Symantec volunteers have helped out at Tech Trek summer camps, which aim to encourage schoolgirls to consider careers in STEM. In Ireland, Symantec volunteers also recently had an exhibit at a conference called iWish, which was aimed at schoolgirls and sought to inspire their interest in STEM fields.

The need to change perceptions around what those working in STEM careers look like was underlined in 2015 by the experience of Isis Wenger, a software engineer who appeared in a poster campaign for the company she worked for. However, many people didn’t believe that Wenger was a real engineer and accused the company of using a model in the campaign. In response to this, Wenger started the hashtag #iLookLikeAnEngineer in order to dispel stereotypes about how engineers ‘should’ look. It led to many female engineers and STEM professionals sharing pictures of themselves at work on social media to show the many sides of those who work in these careers.

As admirable as movements like #iLookLikeAnEngineer are, a visible increase in women working in STEM will hopefully make them unnecessary in the future.

If we want this to happen, underlining to girls at a young age that technology isn’t just for boys, and that it can offer them a long and rewarding career, is essential.

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