The fact that there are so few women in the cybersecurity industry isn’t news to anyone. This has been an issue for years and years but has become more of a popular topic in parallel with the rise in popularity of the profession.
One would think that as cybersecurity becomes a more well-known profession, the gender gap that has existed would start to even itself out, but that hasn’t been the case at all.
According to a survey performed in August 2018 by ISC2, women made up 24 percent of the cyber security workforce. On the contrary, Cybersecurity Ventures reported that in 2019, 20 percent of the global cyber security workforce were women.
While the number of women in the industry is reportedly growing each year, it’s not growing fast enough. At this rate, it’ll be another 20 years before the number of women in cyber makes up just as much as the number of men.
Whenever I tell people I work in the cyber security industry, I get asked one of two things:
Are you a hacker? So, you stop the bad guys?
This behavior is a direct result of the perception of what cyber security is and why women may not be pursuing jobs in the field.
“Perception is a way of regarding, understanding, or interpreting something; a mental impression. ” – Oxford Languages
The lack of women in cyber security is a result of a few things:
- Perception — incorrect impression of the profession from various media sources
- Gender Bias — results in lack of awareness regarding the profession and lack of encouragement to pursue it
Where does this stem from though? That’s easy. Life. Everything around us. The things we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch all impact how we perceive something.
This holds true for how the cyber security industry and jobs are perceived.
How depicted in the media?
Think about how cyber security professionals are depicted in the media. One example that comes to mind is Mr. Robot, a Netflix original about a cybersecurity engineer that aired in 2015.
The show was a hit and received multiple awards including a Golden Globe and an Emmy in 2016. How is this cyber security professional depicted?
A loner male in a dark hoodie of course.
A profession in the industry is far from how this character is depicted. Regardless of gender, this is not what cyber professionals look like. Malicious actors? Maybe. But no, we cyber folks are not sitting in a dark room hammering away at our keyboard all day.
Recently I talked with a first-year cyber security student in my master’s program. One of her primary concerns about working in cybersecurity wasn’t inequality, nor was it the fact that it’s a male-dominated industry.
She was concerned about the team dynamics. She asked me if I spent most of my time working alone or if my role involves collaboration. At the time I didn’t think much of it, but now I wonder why she asked that.
What does a cyber security professional look like?
Could it be that her perception of a cyber security professional is someone who works alone and doesn’t interact with colleagues or other IT teams and departments?
I obviously can’t answer that for her, but it begs the question — is media impacting how we perceive a career in cyber?
I believe so, yes!
Another factor that contributes to the improper perception of the cyber security industry is what we see online and in other media regarding cyber jobs, articles, and products.
As a quick experiment, I decided to Google “Cyber security” and take a look at the resulting images.
Here’s what Google presented to me:
In general, Cyber security in the media typically has a very masculine look. As you can see in the above screenshot, eight of the nine images have the same blue/black colour scheme. While this may seem trivial, it’s something that can subconsciously impact perception. Much of these images align with what’s referred to as masculine colours.
While gender stereotyping is a thing of the past, colour stereotypes are still very much in use when it comes to marketing and design. The above colour schemes have one main difference: the masculine colours are darker, while the feminine ones are brighter and more vivid.
Through my quick Google search, we can see that the majority of marketing materials and images related to cyber security jobs, products, etc. tend to align with the masculine colour scheme.
This can lead females to perceive a career in cyber as such: a profession for men.
Second, many of the images in my search showed lines of code, which can lead people to come to the conclusion that coding experience is a requirement for a cyber security career, which isn’t true.
Coding is generally associated with math and engineering, or STEM degrees.
Why does this matter? Females are less likely to pursue STEM degrees. There is already a pre-existing gender gap in STEM program enrollment and with computer science and coding knowledge being perceived as a requirement, many females may assume they are not qualified for any role in the industry.
Further, while some women may have an interest in cyber security, many may not be interested in the technical aspects. Depicting cybersecurity as a profession requiring technical skills could also be a cause of the lack of women in the industry.
This, in addition to the other tech and cyber security depictions in the media work against our efforts to close the gender gap in the industry.
Gender Bias Resulting in Lack of Awareness & Encouragement
Another contributing factor to the lack of women in the industry is the gender bias that leads to a lack of awareness about the cyber profession or lack of encouragement to go down that path. This is an issue that exists not only in the cyber industry but for careers in STEM as a whole.
Growing up, I never had any idea what I wanted to be. I wasn’t one of those kids that had dreams of being a doctor, lawyer, teacher, etc. Even when I was applying to colleges, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. So I did what most college students do: I picked a major based on what I’d been told I was good at.
I chose Finance, a degree I had no idea what I’d do with, but I excelled in math so I was told it made sense to go into finance or accounting. Interesting right? Considering math is heavily related to STEM degree programs.
In 2010, Forbes published this article: Top 10 College Majors for Women. It was published eleven years ago and it is still a top result for the Google search “top degree programs for women”.
In it are the following two images:
Engineering Technologies and Computer Science degrees aren’t even on the list of the top women’s majors and, as I mentioned, this is one of the top results when doing a simple Google search for “top degree programs for women”.
This is a Google search I was constantly doing when I was in my Junior and Senior years of high school, because I, like many others, had no idea what to major in in college.
Further, according to research done by Girls Who Code, while there are 74% of middle school girls expressing interest in STEM subjects, only 0.4% of high school girls are choosing to major in computer science.
What is happening between middle school and high school that is deterring young girls from majoring in computer science?
According to Edutopia, there is definitely something interesting that happens between eighth grade and girls’ senior years. In middle school, data has shown that girls do just as well in maths and sciences as boys and equally enrol in advanced classes as they move to high school. What’s interesting though, is that the closer they get to college, the less girls that continue enrolling in advanced STEM courses.
Psychologists have attributed this to the fact that, oftentimes, female abilities in math and science topics are downplayed as compared to males, which could be deterring girls from going into STEM degree programs.
A study performed in 2015 had a math teacher grade tests with names on them and an external grader grade the same tests, but without names on them. The results? The boys generally scored higher than the girls on the tests graded by the teacher as opposed to the external grader. Bias like this does a lot to dissuade girls from the subject in the future.
No one wants to pursue advanced placement courses, and eventually a degree, in a subject they struggle to do well in. This further supports the theory that teachers’ biases have a direct impact on the rate at which girls pursue STEM degrees.
Lack of encouragement
And finally, there is an overall lack of encouragement when it comes to girls showing interest in tech-related fields.
Due to that lack of encouragement, the girls that might have been interested in technical roles in the cyber security field — ones that require computer science and programming — aren’t even aware that it’s an option because their guidance counsellors and teachers are pushing them towards other subjects.
While many women decide to learn to code later on in their careers, it’s an option that should be available to them much earlier on.
I am a perfect example of how encouragement from an adult is what led me to the tech industry.
During my first job as a customer service representative, I did a lot of work building various capabilities within the company’s CRM platform. Mind you, this was when I was still majoring in Finance.
One day, while working with the database administrator on something, he asked me if I’d ever considered a career in technology. When I said no, he simply responded,
Well you should. I’ve seen the work you’ve done and you have a natural ability, you’d do well in an IT role.
That was all it took. A few months later I changed my major from Finance to Information Systems. One person did that, and I have him to thank for all I’ve accomplished in my cyber career thus far.
High school and college students look to mentors and guidance counsellors for career advice and it’s crucial that careers in cybersecurity are discussed just as much as business administration, teaching, nursing, communications, and marketing are.
In addition to that, it’s imperative that more is done to show young women that there’s a spot for them in tech and cyber. All it takes is one person to flip a switch in a young girl’s or woman’s mind and make them realize a career in cyber is within reach.
We’re not where we need to be when it comes to attracting women to the cyber industry. The path to a reduced gender gap starts with all of us in the industry.
We need to work to change the perception of cyber security.
A job in the industry doesn’t equal a loner lifestyle, spent typing away at a computer. It’s time to get rid of the images of hooded, mysterious individuals and never-ending lines of code.
There is much more to cyber security roles than meets the eye and it’s important young girls and women know that there’s a seat for them at the table. That there are successful women in the industry, excelling and finding joy in their careers.
The lack of women in the cyber security industry isn’t just attributed to the failure to attract girls and women to the profession. Another thing that continues to be an issue is the retention of women in cyber and tech roles.
Stay tuned for a follow-up article where I discuss the reasons why women tend to leave the tech industry by the age of 35, and what we can do to combat that.
Katyln Gallo – Coffee lover, bookworm, and InfoSec enthusiast https://www.buymeacoffee.com/katlyngallo
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