The Importance of Women in Cybersecurity

There are few fields as stereotypically male-dominated as information technology (IT), so it should come as no surprise that women are underrepresented in cybersecurity jobs.

One recent study found that women made up just 14% of the cybersecurity workforce, compared to 48% of the overall workforce. The farther up the ladder you go, the more acute that problem becomes: of those 14%, just 1% are in senior leadership positions.

This isn't just a representation problem; it's a security problem. The truth is that the field of cybersecurity needs more women, and everyone is more at risk because the field is so skewed. Diverse perspectives are valuable in any field, but the need for diversity is an order of magnitude higher in a field that faces an ever-expanding variety of threats.

Why are there so few women in cybersecurity?

There are two key interconnected stereotypes that influence the lack of women in cybersecurity: the idea that men are better suited to technical skills and pursuits in general, and the idea that cybersecurity is primarily or solely a technical field. These two baseless stereotypes combine to make it difficult for women to get into the field because they're steered away from the training, classes, and opportunities that can lead to cybersecurity careers. 

The first myth has been debunked so thoroughly that we need not spend much time on it. Suffice to say that research compiled by the American Psychological Association has found that men and women have equal innate capabilities in math and science (and, for that matter, in verbal ability). To the extent that any differences exist in practical ability, they're a consequence of boys being steered more to math and science classes and vice versa for girls, not any underlying cognitive difference. If women think they can't do cybersecurity work, that's purely a matter of stereotypes, not based in reality. 

The second myth, the idea that cybersecurity is all about technical skills, bears closer examination, not because women are somehow less suited for technical jobs, but because this second myth obscures the need, as opposed to merely opportunity, for gender balance in the field. In reality, cybersecurity is a complex field in which a variety of perspectives is absolutely required; the current state of the industry makes all of our digital data less safe.

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Expanding our definition of what cybersecurity is

It's not just hardware and software: cybersecurity requires human connection and communication at the organizational level. Using the right technical tools is certainly important, but members of an organization also need to be trained on how to use them. Cybersecurity professionals have to advise on operational security best practices, such as using strong passwords and maintaining physical security around network access points, in order to protect against the full spectrum of threats. Software may be able to stop a virus, but only trained and informed humans can guard against, for example, a phishing scam that could allow an unauthorized user to steal passwords and gain access to sensitive data.

Moreover, cyberattacks grow more varied by the minute, and the people creating them come from diverse, global backgrounds. As such, cybersecurity professionals must anticipate the next attack and proactively create a response, using the tools and protocols available to meet the individual security need. Implementing a successful cybersecurity plan requires creative, flexible, strategic thinking to address the diverse array of factors that affect security and approach them in a manner that works for an organization's unique circumstances.

This need for creativity and flexibility, not just plugging in and using the right software, is precisely why effective cybersecurity requires a diversity of perspectives. This is true in any field — the World Economic Forum reported last year that companies with gender-diverse leadership have higher operating margins and make better business decisions — but the factors that make diverse leadership valuable in any field are magnified by the adversarial nature of cybersecurity.

An 86% male workforce, and in particular overwhelmingly male leadership, is at a natural disadvantage when it comes to creating flexible solutions to diverse problems. A more balanced workforce would naturally have a greater variety of perspectives and thus be better equipped to handle a variety of problems. Closing the gender gap in cybersecurity isn't just a matter of right and wrong; it's good for business and good for security.

It should be said, too, that, we need more women in tech purely as a matter of numbers. As more and more data moves online, the field of cybersecurity is rapidly growing and looking at a massive talent shortage: 3.5 million unfilled jobs globally by 2021. The industry won't be able to fill all of those jobs as long as they're trying to do it with only half of the workforce.

Carving pathways for women in IT security

While the stereotypes that keep women from pursuing cybersecurity careers are false, they can also be a self-fulfilling prophecy. From an early age, young women are told they can't go into tech, and they may be steered away from pursuing coursework to prepare for a career in the field. Women who do break through those barriers and join an IT security team may find themselves surrounded by men, creating a self-perpetuating cycle of unconscious bias that makes it harder for women to find opportunities and advance.

The only way to shift those biases is to get more women in cybersecurity positions and ultimately leadership. In doing so, we need to shift the perception of what cybersecurity is and isn't. Those who thrive in the field of cybersecurity understand that, again, it's not fundamentally about tech; it's about protecting people from harm and tracking down those who compromised their data. People who thrive in the thick of a fast-paced environment and who want to do something different every day are well-suited for cybersecurity careers. It's a promising field, too, with growing opportunities and compensation: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for an information security analyst is just under $100,000.

How to get started in cybersecurity

There are significant barriers for women trying to get started in cybersecurity, but there are ways for determined women to break through those barriers. Those already in the working world may find internal opportunities at their current employers as they recognize the need for cybersecurity. Everyone trying to get a start in the industry can benefit from reaching out to a like-minded mentor. There's value, too, in determination and willingness to take risks. It's only fitting that such a fast-paced, competitive field rewards the bold.

Getting started in cybersecurity requires a combination of technical skills, soft skills, and confidence. The way to develop all those abilities is through training from a highly regarded cybersecurity bachelor's degree program at the cutting edge of the field. You'll not only learn the individual skills you need to qualify for a job in cybersecurity, but also be equipped to enter the field with the confidence and determination that comes from knowing you are qualified to do cybersecurity work, no matter what the stereotypes may say. Get started with the online B.S. in cybersecurity from Utica College.