Beating the Odds: 3 Challenges Women Face in the Cybersecurity Industry

Companies need to be aware of the work culture they foster. Diversity and inclusion aren't just buzzwords. Increasing female visibility and improving female mentoring to help women enter and advance within the cybersecurity industry are key steps forward.

Shikha Kothari, Senior Security Adviser, Eden Data

February 1, 2023

4 Min Read
Woman working in cybersecurity
Source: Maskot via Alamy Stock Photo

Globally, about a quarter of cybersecurity jobs belong to women, which unfortunately doesn't quite correlate with the worldwide female population of 49.58%. We're not saying that every industry needs to have a perfect 50/50 split, but with cybersecurity being a male-dominated industry, it's time companies addressed the challenges women face when joining the cybersecurity workforce by striving for a more diverse workplace.

While progress has been made over the last decade (women occupied only 10% of cybersecurity jobs in 2013), more headway needs to be made. From a lack of industry role models to poor media representation and an absence of mentoring, women face a plethora of challenges in cybersecurity.

So, what are the top three obstacles women face?

Underrepresentation in the Media

The media plays a crucial role in creating and maintaining stereotypes. TV shows and films often push concepts and cliches that are then subconsciously accepted as fact by viewers.

Children are easily influenced by media stereotypes and, therefore, can be led into gendered thinking, particularly regarding jobs. This reasoning can then heavily influence a person's perception of the real world, including their life aspirations and career choices. For example, Navy recruitment went up 500% following the release of Top Gun, starring Tom Cruise.

In the 1990s, one show was proven particularly effective in persuading women to enter STEM occupations — The X-Files, with Gillian Anderson playing Dr. Dana Scully. A recent report looking into the "Scully effect" (PDF) showed that as the only female STEM character on prime-time TV in the '90s, she had a significant impact on the female viewer base. The report revealed that 63% of the women studied said Dana Scully increased their belief in the importance of STEM subjects.

These examples indicate how important representation is in the media and display how a lack of visibility can distort a viewer's perception of what they can achieve. It's time for the media to understand and recognize their influence and the stereotypes they enforce.

Male-Dominated Workplaces Can Come With Several Issues

With cybersecurity being made up of only about 25% women, this officially classes the industry as male dominated. Ask any woman; the thought of entering a workplace full of men isn't an enticing one. This is likely one of the reasons why, in 2021, only 6.5% (PDF) of US women worked in a male-dominated occupation.

With issues regarding the gender pay gap, sexual harassment, underrepresentation, lack of mentoring, and negative stereotyping, it's no wonder that women aren't running to join male-dominated workplaces en masse. For these points to be tackled, they need to be addressed from the top down. Cybersecurity leaders must be aware of the work culture they're fostering and be open to discussing and tackling any issues they find, however uncomfortable that may be.

A 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center found that women in male-dominated industries were more likely to be harassed than women working in female-dominated sectors. Therefore, businesses must create a safe space for employees, particularly women, to report any harassment and unwanted behavior at work. Another initiative for cybersecurity companies to establish is female mentor programs, which help to support their female workers, aid in their professional growth, and close the gender gap in cybersecurity.

Lack of Industry Role Models

While kids these days may not be hanging posters of their favorite celebrities in their bedrooms or lockers anymore, role models are still crucial. The importance of role models is often underplayed. Having a visible representation of what is possible encourages people to push boundaries, strive to be better, and be more ambitious.

Crest's report — "Exploring the Gender Gap in Cybersecurity" — found that 59% of women polled had a "mixed" experience within the cybersecurity industry as they received some support but also faced many challenges. The report identified two key areas for improvement: increasing female visibility and improving female mentoring to help women enter and advance within the industry.

The problem with a lack of role models is its knock-on effect. With fewer women in the industry to look up to, this can discourage women from entering and perpetuates disparity. It's time to disrupt this cycle.

Diversity and inclusion lead to a more rounded perspective, with various team members bringing different points of view, allowing them to solve new problems. While women's current obstacles in cybersecurity won't disappear overnight, identifying the issues and raising awareness welcomes opportunities for change and improvement. Cybersecurity is ready for a female revolution.

About the Author(s)

Shikha Kothari

Senior Security Adviser, Eden Data

With nearly two decades of experience across three continents and a multitude of industries, Shikha is former "Big 4," and holds both her CPA license and accreditation as a Chartered Accountant from India. She has managed countless audits with specialties in SOC I & II, strategically led publicly listed companies in their development and management of SOX programs, and is considered the GOAT when it comes to the design and management of control frameworks. Serving the vendor market as well, Shikha has been a trusted expert on enabling vendors to achieve Microsoft's Supplier Security and Privacy standards.

Her connection to the startup community is deep-rooted in the instrumental advisory role she has offered her husband, a serial entrepreneur, over the years.

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