How to grapple with the growing gender gap in cybersecurity

Attracting women to cyber careers requires mentorship, marketing, more

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Glass ceil­ings are not exclu­sive to the White House. The cyber­se­cu­ri­ty indus­try, too, is strug­gling to open career paths for women.

Although the num­ber of women in the pro­fes­sion is grow­ing, their pro­por­tion of the infor­ma­tion secu­ri­ty work­force — about 10 per­cent, accord­ing to a 2015 Frost and Sul­li­van study—has stayed the same.

And there’s a big­ger problem.

Women played a promi­nent role in com­put­er sci­ences for sev­er­al decades around the mid­dle of last cen­tu­ry. But by 1991, their num­bers in the IT indus­try over­all peaked at 36 per­cent and has declined ever since, accord­ing to Comp­TIA, a non­prof­it trade asso­ci­a­tion for the IT sector.

Relat­ed info­graph­ic: Infos­ec careers beck­on more women

Between 1993 and 2012, there also has been a sharp decline in women major­ing in com­put­er sci­ences — from 28 per­cent to 18 per­cent, based on an analy­sis by the Nation­al Sci­ence Foun­da­tion. Accen­ture fore­casts that if cur­rent edu­ca­tion and work-force trends con­tin­ue, the gen­der gap in com­put­ing will grow rather than shrink.

Elise Yacobellis, (ISC)2 business development strategist
Elise Yaco­bel­lis, (ISC)2 busi­ness devel­op­ment strategist

Even as a rel­a­tive­ly new field, infor­ma­tion secu­ri­ty already has seen that hap­pen. Elise Yaco­bel­lis of (ISC)2, an inter­na­tion­al non­prof­it asso­ci­a­tion that spon­sored the Frost & Sul­li­van research, says there was a rise in the pro­por­tion of women in the indus­try start­ing around 2008, to as high as 17 per­cent. Then the gap widened again.

The infor­ma­tion secu­ri­ty work force is grow­ing, but the num­ber of women in the indus­try is not grow­ing at the same pace,” says Yaco­bel­lis, busi­ness devel­op­ment strate­gist at (ISC)2, which is a leader in pro­vid­ing sev­er­al pro­fes­sion­al cyber­se­cu­ri­ty certifications.

Efforts to reverse trend

The good news is that the indus­try is pay­ing atten­tion. Numer­ous pro­grams and ini­tia­tives have sprout­ed at tech com­pa­nies and non­prof­its alike in an effort to attract more young women to infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy, in gen­er­al, and cyber­se­cu­ri­ty, in particular.

I would love to see a more con­cert­ed effort, but it is a dif­fi­cult effort to ral­ly around,” Yaco­bel­lis says. “Any indi­vid­ual pro­gram that con­tributes to that has got to make a difference—and we’re see­ing an increase in inter­est, just not as high as we’d like it.”

Michele Guel, Cisco engineer and chief security architect
Michele Guel, Cis­co engi­neer and chief secu­ri­ty architect

Michele Guel, engi­neer and chief secu­ri­ty archi­tect at Cis­co, stum­bled into cyber­se­cu­ri­ty in the late 1980s while work­ing at NASA. She was tasked with cre­at­ing a secu­ri­ty role at the Numer­i­cal Aero­dy­nam­ic Sim­u­la­tion facil­i­ty when cyber­se­cu­ri­ty didn’t exist at most organizations.

We didn’t know what (cyber­se­cu­ri­ty) meant, but I got to learn,” she says.

After many years of being the “lone female in the room,” Guel says it’s very encour­ag­ing to see the grow­ing num­ber of women at events such as the RSA Con­fer­ence, because that vis­i­bil­i­ty helps the ranks of women in the indus­try grow organically.

There’s final­ly a tip in the num­bers, and this is real­ly good to see,” she says.

Putting cyber­se­cu­ri­ty on girls’ radar

Two years ago, Guel co-found­ed a busi­ness-ini­tia­tive net­work called the Cis­co Women in Cyber Secu­ri­ty Com­mu­ni­ty, which is focused both on inter­nal and exter­nal out­reach. She says many col­lege-age and younger kids “aren’t hear­ing about these careers so they haven’t thought about it.”

The longer-term goal of the group is to “share the DNA” of what they did at Cis­co so oth­ers can do the same. But first, there’s one more lev­el in the pipeline that Guel would like to bet­ter con­nect with: mid­dle school.

That’s when they’re think­ing, ‘What do I want to do when I grow up, and what class­es do I need to take?’” she says.

Carolyn April, CompTIA senior director of industry analysis
Car­olyn April, Comp­TIA senior direc­tor of indus­try analysis

Car­olyn April, senior direc­tor of indus­try analy­sis at Comp­TIA, says that “sim­ply say­ing that girls aren’t into tech­nol­o­gy or they’re not as good at tech­nol­o­gy as boys is a vast over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion and, frankly, not true.” She says that’s a stereo­type that many influ­encers cater to—even par­ents and teach­ers, but espe­cial­ly toy manufacturers.

CompTIA’s recent study, “Make Tech Her Sto­ry,” found that inter­est in tech careers is high­er in mid­dle school than high school. Near­ly 30 per­cent of mid­dle school girls con­sid­er it, but by high school that num­ber wanes to 18 percent.

Give them some­thing to relate to

Michelle Dennedy, chief pri­va­cy offi­cer at Cis­co, calls this “the mid­dle school blues, math is not cool” prob­lem. She’s seen it in her own daugh­ters, who are great at math but not as inter­est­ed in STEM (sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy, engi­neer­ing, math) careers.

Maybe we’ve named the prob­lem too nar­row­ly,” she says. If robot­ics is not “their jam,” then chil­dren should have oth­er expe­ri­ences relat­ed to tech­nol­o­gy jobs, like design chal­lenges and lead­er­ship skill building.

It all comes down to messaging—essentially, the indus­try has a mar­ket­ing prob­lem. Girls want to be in pro­fes­sions that are nur­tur­ing and mak­ing a dif­fer­ence in some­one else’s life. But they’re not see­ing IT careers in that light.

What girls are not real­iz­ing is that they may be see­ing IT careers in a very nar­row way,” April says. IT is not just about sit­ting at a help desk or ana­lyz­ing a data breach incident—and it’s also a career that cross­es all indus­tries, from retail and fash­ion to health care.

Tap­ping into talent

Guel has seen the dif­fer­ence in the mes­sag­ing first­hand. As part of her involve­ment with the Cyber­Girlz mid­dle school pro­gram at San Jose State Uni­ver­si­ty, she learned that girls like the con­cept of cyber­se­cu­ri­ty. But they told her they want to go into fields like fash­ion and music.

So I spun it around to how you can apply cyber­se­cu­ri­ty to fash­ion,” she says.

That got those girls excit­ed. “We need more of that,” she says.

April agrees that attract­ing the new gen­er­a­tion of women is a mat­ter of fram­ing the con­ver­sa­tion the right way. That’s why it’s impor­tant for both men and women in the indus­try to be men­tors and to demon­strate “that it is work that helps oth­er peo­ple, so that the nur­tur­ing aspect gets tapped into.”

It’s very, very much a mar­ket­ing cam­paign,” she agrees. “If suc­cess­ful, it would bear tremen­dous fruits for both the indus­try and employ­ers, and for these girls.”

More sto­ries on clos­ing the cyber­se­cu­ri­ty tal­ent gap:
Schol­ar­ships aimed at clos­ing cyber­se­cu­ri­ty tal­ent gap
Three steps to fix­ing the cyber­se­cu­ri­ty tal­ent shortage
Unfilled jobs are the biggest threat to cybersecurity

Acad­e­mia tries to ease short­age of cyber sleuths

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