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3/7/2017
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Is Mentorship the Key to Recruiting Women to Cybersecurity?

New ISACA survey identifies biggest barriers faced by women in tech, chief of which are a lack of mentors and female role models.

The cybersecurity industry has got a lot of work to do in order to shift the gender balance of its talent pool. Industry figures show that - in terms of recruitment of women -  cybersecurity remains stagnant, with some of the worst male-to-female ratios in the technology workforce. Experts believe that the ratio is hurting the field's ability to fill open positions, and to creatively take on today's threats.

The question is, how can the industry effectively improve its recruitment of women? A new survey out Monday suggests that the secret to amping up the female participation rate will depend on fostering better connections within the community.

As a way to bring attention to International Women's Day later this week, ISACA commissioned a global survey among more than 500 of its female members across the general IT workforce. It found that nearly nine out of 10 respondents are somewhat or very concerned about the lack of women in the technology space, and it examined the top barriers faced by women who work in IT.

Topping the list is a lack of mentors, cited by 48% of participants. Another 42% of respondents cited a lack of female role models, and 39% said gender bias in the workplace stood as the second and third top barrier. Rounding out the top five were problems around unequal growth opportunities compared to men, and unequal pay for the same skills.

Though the survey did not focus on cybersecurity specifically, its results remain relevant to the security subspecialty.

"A lot of the same issues apply in securities specifically. I think the mentorship thing and leadership tracks are especially challenging for security because in other areas of tech there are a little bit more defined roles and a more linear path in terms of career progress," says Lysa Myers, security researcher at ESET. "Whereas in security, there’s so many facets that are forever changing."

This career path flexibility may be a curse for mentorship, but it would also be a blessing in a lot of ways for security's recruitment of women - so long as organizations are willing to recruit creatively and be willing to train women with the right mindset with the technical skills needed. For example, Myers says that many years ago she was working as a florist before she was hired as a receptionist at a small security company. 

"There was too much work and not enough people to do it and so they started just throwing things over the fence to see what I could do," she says. "Once they felt I could do one level of something, then they'd send something a bit more challenging and I would ask them for more. And eventually they took me on full time in the security department and by the time I left I was someone who was training other people."

As things stand, there aren't many women like Myers in the field. According to ISC(2), current cybersecurity employment of women compared to men has been steadily plateaued at about one in ten for at least the last four years, plus or minus a percentage point fluctuation year to year. That's drastically lower than just about any other IT specialty. Most recent Department of Labor statistics show women make up 34% of computer systems analysts, 35% of web developers and 27% of information systems managers.

Such a low participation rate not only hurts security with a monoculture or male-centric perspectives, but it also severely limits organizations who are hurting for security recruits to fill what experts expect to be a growing labor shortage. As Todd Thibodeaux, president of CompTIA, put it in a recent column for Dark Reading, even if the security world shot low and just tried to do as well as other specialties in IT at attracting and retaining women workers, it just might be able to fill that security shortage that's been nagging the industry.

"When nearly half the population represents an untapped source of expertise, employers need to reassess how they attract and train cybersecurity professionals," he wrote.

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Ericka Chickowski specializes in coverage of information technology and business innovation. She has focused on information security for the better part of a decade and regularly writes about the security industry as a contributor to Dark Reading.  View Full Bio

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