With more than 85% of Canadian companies having been compromised by at least one successful cyber attack last year, it’s time we reflect on an under-appreciated threat to the industry’s continued evolution: an ongoing difficulty in recruiting female candidates for cybersecurity job vacancies. According to Forrester Researcher, Kelly Jackson Higgins, today’s security decision-makers see insufficient resources and a shortage of qualified candidates as the first and second biggest industry challenges.
At a time in history when cyber criminals can penetrate 93% of company networks within a few days, the cyber security talent shortage is more than a staffing issue — it’s a Canadian national security problem. Companies of all sizes, governments, hospitals, and schools continue to face the threat of large-scale ransomware, phishing, smishing, and malware attacks. However, the lack of a skilled workforce leaves us all vulnerable.
Women represent a quarter of the cyber workforce today, with 17% in CISO positions at Fortune 500 companies. Progress is happening, and many talented Canadian women are thriving in the industry. However, more effort is needed to encourage even greater numbers of women to join the challenging and rewarding world of cyber security.
Why Cyber Security?
The dynamic, “fast and furious” world of cyber security is changing daily. It’s a rapidly growing field, rich in well-paying opportunities. Global cyber security spending could reach $354 billion by 2026, with the median cyber professional salary in Canada currently around $90,000.
Cyber security professionals not only require a comprehensive understanding of complex topics, but must also know how many business levers interact with one another across an entire company. A thorough understanding of risk throughout every organizational layer is essential and therefore necessitates hiring individuals well-versed in a vast array of interconnected disciplines, with the ability to work effectively across multiple levels of an organization.
The field needs people with analytical thinking, communication, and leadership skills learned in fields beyond pure technology, as diverse teams offer different viewpoints and perspectives for solving problems.
It Starts in the Classroom
Cyber security is not the only professional arena where women are the minority. Most STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) professions have fewer women in their ranks. While most Canadian women earn undergraduate and advanced degrees, only about a quarter hold a STEM-related degree, where they are significantly underrepresented.
As a natural evolution, Canada is now embracing STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) programs to enhance traditional STEM. This addition recognizes the crucial role the arts play in providing a well-rounded education along with their importance in the application of core STEM concepts. After all, in order to engineer a breathtaking new design, form and function must work together. STEAM provides a more creative, problem-solving approach to education than traditional STEM, representing the imagination and innovation the jobs of tomorrow will require.
Often, girls aren’t aware of their options in cyber security because they aren’t exposed to the opportunities or know anyone in the field. This starts in elementary school. Representation is huge — young girls and women need to see people who look like them in cyber careers. We aren’t going to be able to turn the tap on to get more cyber security professionals unless we’re proactive about planting the seeds early to get students excited and fascinated with tech from the beginning.
Research shows that although 74% of middle school girls show interest in STEM subjects, only 0.4% of high school girls major in computer science. While more schools are starting to develop STEM curriculums at all levels, some community programs have emerged to introduce additional opportunities. I applaud the Ontario Government for announcing this month that coding will be added to the curriculum starting in grade one. Girl Guides have added a STEM program and the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology offer multiple programs and scholarships to help young women broaden their career horizons.
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Securing a Future for All
The heightened awareness around fewer women in cyber security has moved the needle in the right direction. In addition, women’s cyber security associations and other initiatives put the issue front and center.
While the industry is growing more inclusive, maintaining this rate of positive change requires effort. That includes businesses adapting their hiring and inclusionary efforts, of course, but it also involves empowerment. I’ve found that women are reluctant to volunteer themselves for cyber security roles because they assume they need to meet 90% of a job’s qualifications to apply, whereas in my experience, men are more likely to confidently apply with only half the qualifications. We need to reinforce the idea that having all the required skills at the outset is not an imperative, but showing a willingness to learn along with a passion for personal growth are — especially in this field, that is constantly and rapidly evolving.
My advice to women is to go for it. Women are as qualified as men to handle the complexities of cyber — they just need to seize the opportunities that are ready for the taking. There is no elevator to success, we must all take the stairs. I encourage girls and women to take that first step towards an exciting and fulfilling career in cyber. It starts with the bravery of a few, to be willing to power through as the minority, until that is no longer the case…which should be right around the corner!