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BLOG POST: Women in Cybersecurity | Time for More!

Blog Post by Maliha Charania, Meditology Services IT Risk Management Consultant 

As I approach my 6th year working in a cybersecurity career; I find myself coaching younger students who have yet to launch their careers. It has been of some surprise to me that many of the women I’ve encountered seem to be not as interested as men in cybersecurity. To dig a little deeper into why, I decided to do a bit of research and get some insight from successful women in cybersecurity.

Cybersecurity is one of the best technology jobs as rated by U.S News & World Report’s Best Technology Jobs” of 2018. Still many people, especially women, are not interested in choosing it as a career option.  According to Forbes Magazine, only about 10% of the cybersecurity workforce is made up of women. Recently, an article by Information Age states that by the time a woman turns 16, she will have already decided not to choose cybersecurity as a career. This took me by surprise, because I am a woman and extremely passionate about my cybersecurity career. In addition to my own passion in this field, there are many of my female peers who also feel that a career in cybersecurity is a great choice for women.

In my college’s IT security classes, there were very few students in general. Females made up an even smaller subset of this already small group. I thought this was because cybersecurity was such a new career field at the time. People didn’t want to take the risk of not being able to find a good job. However, the number still hasn’t changed significantly, even though cybersecurity is now considered to be one of the most promising, and fastest growing, career fields.

My colleague, Bethany Page, IT Risk Management and Chief Information Security Officer at Meditology Services shares the idea that professions in cybersecurity are not well understood.  According to her, “The full picture of what cybersecurity entails is not accurately portrayed in the media, perhaps even in schools. There are so many components that go beyond having technical knowledge, like being able to communicate complex (technical) issues into a simple concept that anyone can understand. It also means you are communicating with multiple groups to reach a goal.”

She further debunked one myth that may be stopping women from choosing security as a career, “You do not have to be a computer whiz to be successful and knowledgeable in information security.  I think women may be deterred from wanting a career in cybersecurity because they see their male counterparts dominating in this field.”

Certainly, the role of Communication Skills is high on the list of scarce professional skills in healthcare information security roles.  The “Ability to Communicate Effectively” was noted as a scarce skill by over 50 percent of International firms and over 70 percent of U.S. firms responding in a 2016 survey conducted by MacAfee Intel Security Center for Strategic and International Studies. As many will agree, women often bring excellent communication skills into the workplace, so female applicants should highlight their experience and skills in areas of communication, teamwork and leadership when interviewing for information security positions.

Hacking Out Cybersecurity Myths

The article by Information Age also claims a career in cybersecurity is not as attractive to women. Indeed, the very first question I usually get asked whenever I introduce my profession is “Do you know how to hack?” For many women the idea of only being an ethical hacker does not appeal to them.  Ethical hacking is one of the potential career paths within cybersecurity; however, it is not the only path.

Another colleague, Nadia Fahim-Koster, Meditology Services’ Managing Director, IT Risk Management is convinced that hacking and other cybersecurity jobs should not be confused. “I think women and young people in general (like very young kids) may not fully understand the meaning of cybersecurity and what it encompasses. I have never equated security with just hacking.”

Bethany mirrored these comments: “We need to show everyone what a day in the life of a cybersecurity professional looks like. There are multiple routes and avenues to take in this field. It’s a shame that a lot of times it gets boiled down to a ‘hacker in a hoody’. That type of role is maybe 10-15% of this industry.”

There are many skill areas under the umbrella of cybersecurity. For example, risk assessments, forensics, security governance, software and cloud security, etc. Cybersecurity touches everything now, be it software, hardware, processes, and even people.

Nadia offered another perspective about why women are not choosing cybersecurity career routes.  She said, “I am not convinced that women are not interested in a career in cybersecurity.” She believes that a lack of support from others in the IT security may have a big role to play in women not pursuing careers in cybersecurity.

According to Nadia, “I think women enter the IT field in general, including security, but get out of it at some point in their career. Several studies show that this issue is related to a lack support from employers and male colleagues. Young girls who show interest in technical fields often do not have the support system they need to thrive in a male-dominated environment and don't know how to cope. It's easier to just not go there.”

Help Give Cybersecurity a Better Chance with Women

So, what can cybersecurity professionals or their employers do to provide more support for women to choose cybersecurity careers? As Nadia put it, “much education is needed.”

Creating awareness is a great starting point.  Stakeholders in the cybersecurity profession, their employers, recruiters and educators can spread the word and paint the real picture of what a career in cybersecurity is all about, particularly for women. Participation in career fairs, school visits and writing blogs will all help reach to a broader audience.

“Leading by example alone won’t do it, so I think we also have to get the conversation going earlier. Getting out in front of girls at a young age and encouraging their interest and involvement in IT and security—ultimately breaking the gender stereotypes. Having career talks at colleges targeting women is another great way we can encourage women into considering a career in cybersecurity.  It may give women a perspective they didn’t have about this industry and what cybersecurity is all about,” said Bethany.

I enjoy playing the role of a superhero as we work towards keeping the cyber world protected from the bad guys. Women considering this as a career need to hear, You too could be a superhero. All you need to do is to find the right mentor and follow your dreams.

For all the cybersecurity professionals out there, keep spreading the word, providing support, and showing potential colleagues what a career in cybersecurity is really about.   

This is a message to all those out there still deciding on a career or too scared to choose cybersecurity as a career. Don’t be afraid of making this choice! Think of all the difference you could make in this field!  

References

U.S. News & World Report. (2018, Jan. 10). Best job rankings: Best technology jobs. Retrieved from: https://money.usnews.com/careers/best-jobs/rankings/best-technology-jobs

Limbago, A. L. (2018, Jan. 29). Why so few women work in cyber security (and how we can change it). Forbes Magazine. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2018/01/29/why-so-few-women-work-in-cyber-security-and-how-can-we-change-it/#9252c8d6c224

Ismail, N. (2017, Nov. 9). Most women have decided against a career in cybersecurity before they are 16”, Information Age. Retrieved from: http://www.information-age.com/women-decided-career-cybersecurity-theyre-16-123469463/

MacAfee - Intel Security Center for Strategic and International Studies. (2016, May 2). Hacking the Skills Shortage. Retrieved from https://www.mcafee.com/us/resources/reports/rp-hacking-skills-shortage.pdf

Johnson, T. J. (2018, Jan. 25). Why are so few women in cybersecurity. Government Technology. Retrieved from: http://www.govtech.com/workforce/Why-Are-So-Few-Women-in-Cybersecurity.html

Maliha Charania is an IT Risk Management Consultant with Meditology Services, a leading provider of IT security and privacy services for the healthcare industry. She has designed and implemented numerous global IT security initiatives in both healthcare and academia. She has extensive technical security knowledge and has served as a Subject Matter Expert in matters of IT security and compliance for many healthcare providers, business associates, and payers of varying sizes and across the world.