Where are all the women? Bridging the gender divide in cybersecurity

Article by Mary Blackowiak, lead product marketing manager, AT&T Cybersecurity

cyber securityMy path into the cybersecurity industry might not be traditional, but I have always had a keen interest in technology.

It began at the age of eighteen when I managed a camera and photo processing store, then working with a major electronics retailer. I stumbled into the corporate world in 2007 working as a product manager for a distributor of data storage and networking products. I didn’t have a college degree and had no experience outside of retail and food service, but the hiring manager saw something in me that made him take a chance, by offering me the job. It was this gesture that likely changed my entire career trajectory and opened up a world of new opportunities. As I learned more about the products I managed and promoted, my passion for IT and high tech grew, and eventually I decided to attend classes at the local technical college where I achieved my associate degree in network administration.

To come full circle, a few years later I was recruited back to the big brand electronics retailer; this time in a corporate role as product segment manager working across many IT categories. My appetite for learning about tech continued, so I studied to earn my bachelor’s degree in network design and management.  And finally, after seeing the boom of cybersecurity in Austin, Texas, I returned to school once again, to gain my masters in cybersecurity.

At my graduation ceremony for my master’s degree, it dawned on me: where are all the women? There were always very few women in my technical classes, but in this instance, I was not only the sole female getting a masters in cybersecurity at the ceremony, but also the lone woman for any IT related masters program.

Fast forward a few years to taking a role in product marketing at AT&T Cybersecurity.  After a couple of months prior to taking the job, I headed to Las Vegas to attend a big cybersecurity industry event.  Walking the show floor, it hit me again:  Where are all the women?

According to a recent report from (ISC)2 , men outnumber women in the Cybersecurity field by 3 to 1.  Yet, even as I walked around the Mandalay Bay Convention Center, that number, in actual fact, felt generous.

Isn’t there a skills shortage?

One of the first things learned in Econ 101 is the Law of Supply and Demand.  While the numbers vary by study and author, there’s an overwhelming agreement that we have a supply problem in cybersecurity – a big one.  According to a recent research study by Emsi, a labor analytics firm, there are only 48 qualified candidates for every 100 job openings in the cybersecurity field. So, with demand high, and supply low, why aren’t women flocking to cybersecurity?

As with all complex problems, there isn’t just one reason.  Some argue that children are encouraged to study and aspire for different occupations, according to their gender, as early as primary school.  Others suggest that while the number of women choosing to pursue STEM degrees is increasing, the number of men choosing these subjects is increasing even faster.  There’s also a wage gap to consider and fewer female leaders, thus, fewer role models.  Or perhaps it’s that women are more likely to leave STEM jobs than their male counterparts.  On reflection, it’s probably a case of a little of each.

We can do better… 

It will take many purposeful actions and combined efforts to shift perceptions and change the current reality across families, school systems, universities, private enterprise, and the public sector.  And while everyone plays a part, those of us already in the field share the responsibility to drive this change.

Here are some things we can keep in mind to help advance women in cybersecurity:

  • Don’t be the barrier between you and opportunity:Most of the women I know will pass on submitting an application for a job description where they don’t meet 100% of the listed requirements. This is not how the majority of men operate. In fact, according to one study, women apply for 20% fewer jobs than men. If we limit ourselves to jobs that are an exact match to what we have done in the past, how will we ever expand our skillset or advance our careers? Apply to the jobs that interest you, network to make sure your resume gets to the hiring manager, and come to the interview prepared with how you plan to overcome that gap in your experience.
  • Be confident in your knowledge and experience:Some of the most brilliant women I have had the pleasure to work with in this industry suffer from imposter syndrome. I am no exception. There have been many occasions that a male colleague has challenged my point of view or knowledge of a particular technology that made me question how well I truly understood it. After doing additional research, I usually find that I had it right. We can all learn from each other. But resist the urge to immediately second guess your abilities when you encounter an opposing view and never pass up opportunities to be featured as a subject matter expert.
  • Lift up other women: We need to collectively quit viewing other women as “competition” in the workplace and instead start treating them as allies. Refer your talented female friends and colleagues for jobs, invite them to industry events, include them in meetings, and offer encouragement when they experience self-doubt. Have you seen young women get promoted faster, or heard that they are getting paid more than when you joined the industry? That’s a GOOD thing and means we are making progress.
  • Know when to leave:If your employer doesn’t appreciate the value you bring to the company, doesn’t compensate you fairly, or doesn’t offer you opportunities to advance your career and do what you are passionate about, find an employer that will. Yes, starting over is difficult. And yes, the job search and interview process can be tiresome, especially when trying to balance 40+ hours a week at the office and taking care of a family. Doesn’t it make sense to invest some time and effort in the short term to positively affect your earning potential over the next couple of decades and to realise fulfilment from something you are doing five out of seven days a week?

I credit my career to the hiring manager at the tech distributor who took a chance on me. If he hadn’t, I really don’t know where my career path would have taken me because cybersecurity wasn’t in my plan, although it turned out to be my destiny. I see so many bright, intelligent women second-guessing themselves or lacking confidence when pitted against a male colleague. Let’s all support each other, believe in ourselves a little bit more and, more importantly, show the younger generations that a career in cybersecurity is attainable and hugely rewarding.


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