What Women in Cybersecurity Really Think About Their Careers

New survey conducted by a female security pro of other female security pros dispels a few myths.

For once, some good news about women in the cybersecurity field: A new survey shows that despite the low number of women in the industry, many feel empowered in their jobs and consider themselves valuable members of the team.

The newly published "Women in Cybersecurity:  A Progressive Movement" report — a survey of women by a woman — is the brainchild of security industry veteran Caroline Wong, vice president of security strategy at Cobalt, who formerly worked at Cigital, Symantec, eBay, and Zynga.

Wong says she decided to conduct the survey after getting discouraged with all of the bad news about women being underrepresented, underpaid, and even harassed in the technology and cybersecurity fields. The number of women in the industry has basically plateaued at 11% over the past few years.

She says that over the 12 years of her own career in the industry she has met and worked with many successful women and decided it was time to get their insight firsthand. "These depressing stats [about the number of women in security] are very important to show, but the other side of the story is not coming to light," Wong says.

"I've met and interacted with tons of women who are thriving in their careers and making a real difference in the world," she says. "There are a lot more women in the industry than people even recognize."

Wong says she focused on women as part of the diversity equation, mainly because she's a woman and knows a lot of women in the industry. "It's really an issue of diversity," she says. "Women are a subset of the diversity situation."

More than half of the female cybersecurity professionals in the survey have been in the industry for more than five years and more than a third for more than 10 years. When asked what excites them most about cybersecurity, 73% say solving complex problems; 65%, that it's a growing field with lots of opportunity; 48%, new technology; 46%, future innovation; and 29%, legal and regulatory aspects.

Fewer than half came to security via IT or computer science. The rest came from backgrounds in compliance, psychology, internal audit, entrepreneurship, sales, and art. Ten percent say they joined the industry because they "like to break things."

"Women in this field say it's actually fun, and they're having a good time. They are feeling they are doing meaningful and impactful work and it's deeply satisfying to them," says Wong, who also conducted deep-dive interviews with multiple women from the survey who were willing to be quoted in the final report. "You don't necessarily have to have a computer science degree to contribute."

Nearly three-quarters of them say the value they bring to cybersecurity is their ability to communicate well across cross-functional teams. Other values they cite: 70%, they get things done; 65%, they multitask well; 62%, they bring fresh insight; 55%, they think about the big picture; 54%, they use their intuition; 50%, they coordinate and supervise; 48%, their drive; 48%, their long-term view; and 41%, they create community. Around 30% say their value is their technical focus and skills.

"So many people naturally go to the threat, think about the threat, want to stop the threat. It's sexy and adrenaline driven," Michelle Valdez, senior director of enterprise cyber resilience at Capital One, told Wong in an interview for the report. "I'm the kind of person that takes a different approach. I prefer to look at a problem — what do we want to prevent, and what is the outcome we want. I work backwards from there."

Wong says even the most technical women she interviewed for the report all value their long-term perspective of security issues. "They take this big-picture approach to solving problems in their work. That's something that uniquely makes the women I spoke with very successful" in their roles, she says.

Chenxi Wang, founder of the Jane Bond Project and a veteran cybersecurity professional, says the survey shed a positive light on the female experience in the industry. "Many of us feel good about our jobs and the industry," Wang says.

Wang, who read the report but did not take the survey, notes that the list of women who used their names in the survey represent many accomplished and successful industry veterans, which she says could account for the upbeat tone of the findings. "I don't know how many junior-level women on this list took the survey. … And when people put their names behind a survey, they tend to be a lot more positive" in their responses, she says.

On the flip side, more than half of the women in security say they wish they had more technical skills, and 43% struggle with their own expectations of their performance. "That's a fairly common thing among women working in technical fields. Many of us have this desire to be so uber-technical. You have to be so good at what you do so that all of your male colleagues will listen to you," Jane Bond Project's Wang says. "I do that, too. Whenever I get into a new field [of security], I read technical manuals like crazy to get myself familiar with this new technology."

Cobalt's Wong says the goal of the survey is to provide hiring managers with female security pros' perspectives on what they bring to the table, and to inspire young women to enter the field.

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About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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