How many women do you know who are cybersecurity experts? If you can only name a handful (or maybe none at all), that’s not surprising.
In 2021, women represented just 25 per cent of the global cybersecurity work force, according to an estimate from Cybersecurity Ventures, an organization that carries out research into the world cyber economy. Meanwhile, it’s an industry in great demand – that same year, there were 3.5 million unfilled cybersecurity jobs globally.
This dearth of women in the cybersecurity field is a problem that Cat Coode, a data privacy consultant based in Waterloo, Ont., has experienced first-hand.
“When we walk in a room and start to talk about cybersecurity, we are assumed to be the salespeople and not actually the people who know how to implement,” says Ms. Coode.
“It is sadly one of those things where we do have to prove ourselves first and then get the job; whereas often men can just say, ‘I can do this.’”
Still, these challenges have done little to dampen Ms. Coode’s passion for the field. In fact, she says one of the things she loves the most about cybersecurity is the diversity of opportunities available.
“The roles needed to support [cybersecurity] range from the creative to the organized to the highly technical,” she says. “Given that a threat could come from anywhere, we need a diverse group of individuals to be able to think like the diverse group of threat actors.”
Talked over and ignored
The barriers that women face in the cybersecurity industry can be vague and difficult to pinpoint, says Natalia Stakhanova, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Saskatchewan and a Canada Research Chair in security and privacy.
“You can only feel [it] once you get into the field,” she says. “Most women’s decisions to enter or leave are based on those intangible problems and barriers [that have been] created for them.”
These issues range from women being talked over in meetings, to having their ideas ignored or co-opted by their male colleagues, to never being recognized for their work. Dr. Stakhanova says those slights start early and can last a woman’s whole career.
“Obviously, if a [young woman] sees this type of treatment towards her where she is constantly reminded that she has to prove herself [and prove] that she actually knows something, she would think twice whether this is a good career for her,” she says.
Dr. Stakhanova’s insights are reflected in the available data on this issue. A survey commissioned by Microsoft Security earlier this year found that “women are more likely than men to think that cybersecurity is ‘too complex’ of a career,” and that men are more than twice as likely than women (21 per cent versus 10 per cent) to feel qualified to apply for a cybersecurity job posting.
As well, more women than men in the survey (27 per cent versus 21 per cent) said that men are seen as a better fit for technology fields.
Raphaelle Gauriau is an outlier – someone who was encouraged to seek paths that many young girls often aren’t. The information systems security manager at the University of Toronto studied mathematics and physics then got a master’s degree in computer science before landing her first job in the cybersecurity field.
“I was encouraged by my parents to do that, so I didn’t feel any constraints in that regard,” she says.
But her early entry into the world of computer science and the encouragement of her parents couldn’t shield her completely from the issues she would face once in the field.
“I’ve experienced situations where some people would tell me pretty directly, ‘A woman shouldn’t be doing that,’” says Ms. Gauriau. “It was quite explicit.”
Moving the dial
While cybersecurity is still a male-dominated industry, in recent years there has been an influx of initiatives designed to encourage women to join the field.
For example, the YMCA Hamilton and YMCA Canada recently partnered with the University of Ottawa-Professional Development Institute (PDI) to offer free training for women and non-binary people in information and cybersecurity management through the Uplift program, funded by FedDev Ontario. As well, Canadian non-profit organization Women CyberSecurity Society offers mentorship, scholarships and job placement for women seeking to enter the field.
Still, Dr. Stakhanova says encouraging women to pursue cybersecurity goes beyond just opening the door at the point of the job search.
Because she is seeing more women in the courses she teaches – up to five or six in a class of 60, compared to the one or two who would have been enrolled a decade ago – she says it’s crucial that these women feel welcomed and not overshadowed by the men in classes.
“There are many ways to make them feel welcomed, one of which is simply showing that they are just as knowledgeable and skilled as the men,” she says. “[You can] reach out to them in class or in person when their work is good [and] let them know that there are career opportunities for them in this field.”
To really move the dial, conversations about cybersecurity should be starting much earlier in the lives of women and girls, she adds.
“I don’t understand why we have to wait until high school to represent some bits and pieces [of cybersecurity],” she says. “We can certainly introduce the interesting concepts [to kids], so that they can see it and feel it as a part of their daily life as they grow up.”
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