#IWD2023: Learning Lessons to Boost Female Representation in Cybersecurity

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The cybersecurity industry is facing an acute skills and hiring crisis. On International Women’s Day 2023, it’s even clearer to see that women remain a largely untapped resource when it comes to filling the cybersecurity skills gap.

The numbers are sobering. A recent report from (ISC)2 into the global cybersecurity workforce has found that, while the global cybersecurity workforce is as big as it’s ever been at 4.7 million people, so too is the gap between the number of roles available and the number of qualified individuals to fill them, at 3.4 million. UK government research confirms this view, finding over half of UK businesses have at least a basic cybersecurity skills gap and that this shortage has not reduced significantly in the past four years.

Against this backdrop, why do women still only constitute one-quarter (24%) of the global cybersecurity workforce?

This question has been asked many times before and often attracts similar answers. Not enough women are studying the technical qualifications required to study cybersecurity and computer science at higher levels. Fewer young women and girls are choosing to study STEM subjects because they are seen as male-dominated, in addition to a lack of positive female role models and support from teachers or parents. And those that do make it into the cybersecurity profession often find themselves lagging behind their male peers when it comes to being considered for pay rises and promotions.

The difficult truth is there are no quick or easy wins to this problem. But there are clear lessons from recent years that can, with time, help boost the recruitment pipeline with diverse, talented cybersecurity candidates.

Engage with People at all Stages of Their Learning Journey

When the talent shortage and disparity between genders in the industry is this severe, we can’t afford to be selective about who we engage with. We must encourage a broad range of people into cybersecurity, from school-age girls to women professionals seeking a career change. The diversity in backgrounds this approach will provide will pay dividends later.

Obviously, the tactics we use to reach these different audiences will change considerably. At Cisco Networking Academy, one of the world’s longest-running digital-skills-to-jobs programs, we’ve built a lot of experience in understanding these audiences’ different educational needs.

Some students, for example, benefit most from free-to-access self-paced online learning, such as through our Skills for All programme. On the other hand, many benefit from more intensive, instructor-led courses, such as those provided by ‘Women Do Cyber,’ a partnership between Cisco, Scottish Women in Technology (SWiT) and Glasgow Caledonian University.

By partnering with local education providers and non-profit bodies, we’ve found we’ve been able to extend our own impact as an organization much more effectively than if we were going it alone.

Embrace Equity

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day calls on all of us to embrace equity. This means going one step beyond providing equality to making some adjustments so everyone enjoys a truly level playing field.

It’s important today to pause and consider what this means in the cybersecurity industry. Even if we’re able to solve the talent pipeline issue, many women may still be subject to workplace discrimination. In one survey, 87% of women in the cybersecurity industry reported having experienced unconscious discrimination, while another found 59% of women polled had a ‘mixed’ experience within the industry, receiving some support while also facing many challenges around a lack of positive role models and mentoring opportunities.

Remember the Scale of the Cyber Threat

Cybersecurity threats show no sign of abating any time soon. According to ActionFraud, the UK’s national fraud and cybercrime reporting centre, ransomware attacks increased by over 3000% from 171,000 in 2019/20 to 5.5 million in 2020/21. For International Women’s Day this year, let’s inspire more women and girls to consider cybersecurity as a profession. But just as importantly, let’s make sure our workplaces are welcoming and nurturing environments where women can develop their careers and have a real opportunity to contribute to the significant challenges we’re facing as an industry.

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