The Virtual CISO

Recruitment & Reskilling Strategy , Training & Security Leadership

Why Are There Fewer Women Than Men in Cybersecurity?

How Society, Education and the Workplace Contribute to Underrepresentation
Why Are There Fewer Women Than Men in Cybersecurity?

The underrepresentation of women in cybersecurity is a complex issue that reflects broader societal, educational and workplace factors. Despite the critical importance of cybersecurity in safeguarding our digital world, women are significantly underrepresented in this field. This disparity not only highlights industry-wide issues of equality and diversity, but it also underscores a missed opportunity for cybersecurity teams to benefit from a wider range of perspectives and skills.

See Also: Cybersecurity workforce development: A Public/Private Partnership that enhances cybersecurity while giving hands-on SOC experience to students

We need to explore the reasons behind this underrepresentation, including stereotypes and biases, educational barriers, workplace culture, and the lack of visibility and role models, and we need to consider the implications and potential strategies for change.

In my career, women have been more talented, hard-working and innovative, and they have presented more creative skills than their male counterparts, regardless of job role or function.

Stereotypes and Social Biases

The roots of underrepresentation lie deep within societal stereotypes and biases that shape perceptions from a young age. This has been true across all professions for all time. Cybersecurity, like many STEM fields, suffers from the stereotype that it is a male-dominated and male-suited profession.

These stereotypes are reinforced by media portrayals, societal expectations and even toy and game marketing that subtly direct boys and girls into traditional gender roles. Girls are less encouraged to engage in technical activities or pursue interests in computers and technology, leading to a gendered divide in interest and confidence in these areas from a young age.

Educational Barriers

This societal bias extends into the education system, where girls often encounter discouraging environments in STEM subjects. A lack of female role models in these fields, gender-biased teaching methods and sometimes overt discouragement contribute to the attrition of girls' interest and participation in STEM, which fairly recently includes cybersecurity.

Educational institutions frequently fail to provide an inclusive curriculum that highlights the contributions of women in technology or to implement teaching methods that engage all students equally. This is understandable because the vast majority of those who run these programs are males, but it is not excusable.

Educational barriers result in a lower number of women pursuing higher education in cybersecurity, which further perpetuates the cycle of underrepresentation. Yet, even in 2024, some would say, there is no real problem that gets solved by encouraging young women into the STEM fields. So the issue starts to resemble a First World problem weakly seeking a solution.

I disagree. I believe that most of what ails us today is a lack of competency that causes imposter syndrome. And many practitioners are simply too overwhelmed by the realities of the work in cybersecurity to adequately address this issue. I know of no CISO who knows everything about everything. The few that I know who know the most are in such a minority, there aren't enough of them to run master classes on everything all practitioners should know.

This is not the practitioners' fault. The onslaught of new technology is coming at us so fast, it would be a miracle if any one CISO could capture, assimilate and retain all that knowledge at a point in time when it is necessary to help them do their jobs.

Workplace Culture and Practices

For women who navigate these educational hurdles and enter the cybersecurity field, workplace culture and practices can pose additional barriers to retention and advancement.

The tech industry, including cybersecurity, has been rightly criticized for its "bro culture," which can be unwelcoming and even hostile to women. This culture is characterized by practices and attitudes that devalue women's contributions, overlook them for promotions and challenging projects, and subject them to harassment and discrimination.

The recent surge in employee population growth from other cultures, many of which are used to the devaluation of women outside of the workforce, doesn’t translate well or do anything reformative. Such an environment not only discourages women from remaining in the field but also dissuades others from entering it.

Lack of Visibility and Role Models

The underrepresentation of women in cybersecurity is also self-perpetuating due to the lack of visible female role models in the field. Women considering a career in cybersecurity often find few examples of successful female professionals to inspire them. This lack of visibility contributes to the misconception that cybersecurity is not a viable or welcoming career path for women.

The absence of female mentors and role models means that aspiring women in cybersecurity lack guidance, support and networking opportunities that are crucial for career development and advancement in any and all fields.

Implications of Underrepresentation

The underrepresentation of women in cybersecurity has significant implications for women and for the field as a whole. Those who push for diversity on teams say having a broader range of perspectives and experiences enhances creativity, innovation and problem-solving in cybersecurity, but the argument is backed by weak statistics. The danger here is that once the shine has faded from the DEI trophies, so will the money, and once-hopeful programs will retreat behind much more objective and brittle hiring practices.

The lack of women in cybersecurity means that the field misses out on improved creativity, critical thinking, innovation and Socratic problem-solving at a time when the demand for skilled cybersecurity professionals is growing and the true sophistication of cyberthreats is expanding. This underrepresentation also contributes to the wider gender pay gap and economic disparities faced by women.

Strategies for Change

Addressing the underrepresentation of women in cybersecurity requires a multifaceted approach that tackles the root causes. Actions include:

  • Encourage early interest: Initiatives to engage girls in cybersecurity and STEM from a young age are crucial. Create educational content and programs that are inclusive and appealing to girls and address stereotypes and biases in society and media.
  • Reform education: Schools and universities should adopt inclusive curriculums and teaching methods that encourage participation from all genders. Increasing the visibility of female role models in cybersecurity education and providing scholarships and opportunities for women can also help bridge the gap.
  • Change workplace culture: Organizations within the cybersecurity industry must actively work to create inclusive workplace cultures that value gender diversity. This includes implementing policies against discrimination and harassment, promoting women into leadership roles and providing mentorship and career development opportunities for women.
  • Increase visibility and networking: Increasing the visibility of women in cybersecurity through media, conferences and leadership positions can inspire more women to join the field. Foster networks and communities for women in cybersecurity to provide support, mentorship and career development opportunities.
  • Promote advocacy and policy changes: Governments and industry bodies can play a role in promoting gender diversity in cybersecurity through policies, regulations and initiatives that encourage the inclusion and advancement of women.

By challenging stereotypes, removing educational and workplace barriers and increasing the visibility of women in the field, we can begin to address this disparity. Doing so is not only a matter of fairness and equity but also a strategic imperative for the cybersecurity industry, which stands to benefit immensely from the full participation of women. Whether it's because they disproportionally watch programming or read subject matter that appeals to intellectual curiosity, data tells us that women are simply better at this stuff than men.

Embracing diversity and fostering an inclusive environment will enrich the field of cybersecurity with a broader range of perspectives, skills and innovations, making our digital world more secure.

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