As ICT demand overwhelms supply, women are more important to cybersecurity than ever

But piquing women’s interest in cybersecurity may require changing the way we think about cybersecurity

Lingering misunderstandings about the nature of ICT careers continue to hinder the representation of women in cybersecurity and ICT in general, executives have noted as the world commemorates International Women’s Day and its annual theme #BalanceForBetter.

Women made up 28 percent of Australia’s 663,100-strong workforce in 2017, according to the Deloitte-Australian Computer Society’s Digital Pulse 2018 report. That’s compared with overall workforce participation of 45 percent overall – and ahead of the startup scene, where the Startup Muster 2018 survey revealed just 22.3 percent of startup founders are female.

This disparity is both a diversity challenge and an economic one, with Deloitte Access Economic figures suggesting that equal representation of women in leadership roles – across business generally, not just ICT – could add up to $10.8 billion to the Australian economy.

New figures from cybersecurity industry body ISACA’s State of Cybersecurity research highlighted the persistence of gender inequality, with just 45 percent of the female respondents saying that men and women have equal opportunities for career advancement – down from 51 percent last year.

Improving the representation of women in cybersecurity is a goal for many reasons, but one is simple supply and demand. With 100,000 more workers needed by 2023, and fewer than 5000 domestic ICT graduates per year, it’s a mathematical certainty that the industry won’t remedy its skills imbalance – much less its gender inequality – without dramatic changes.

Fully 58 percent of respondents to the ISACA survey said their organisations have unfilled cybersecurity positions, with 32 percent saying it takes at least six months before those positions can be filled.

Some efforts to scale the promotion of cybersecurity as a career for women have been producing benefits, with industry development group AustCyber continuing to act on the recommendations of its Sector Competitiveness Plan with a series of interactive dashboards about cyber security careers, training opportunities, and career paths. It also noted the recent launch of LifeJourney’s Cyber Schools Challenge, targeted at high schools students, and the “significant progress” made by building new programs and cyber skills challenges for schools.

“Improving female participation in Australia’s ICT workforce requires greater efforts in engaging and maintaining their interest in digital technology and computing‐related skills,” the ACS Digital Pulse Report 2018 notes.

These skills have generally been linked to STEM subjects studied in schools, which are held as precursors for a lifelong interest in cybersecurity and ICT more generally. Yet with boys outnumbering girls in Year 12 advanced mathematics by a ratio of 2:1 and Year 12 physics by 3:1, conventional wisdom has ruled out many potential cybersecurity staffers simply virtue of what they study in school.

Building a better balance should rely not just on particular subjects, but on better identifying the people whose aptitude and personal interests make them well suited for cybersecurity. “Ultimately, working in IT comes down to a passion for problem-solving, day in and day out,” Solarwinds head geek Destiny Bertucci says.

“Cybersecurity needs people who love to read and find answers; developers to help create new ways to block threats and help protect data in every sector; and, of course, a dose of charisma and good relationship-building skills go a long way, particularly when driving security policies within an organisation.”

Shannon Campbell, senior security specialist with CQR Consulting, suggested that ICT’s image might be the problem – and that it might be time to rename the industry into something that is far removed from the lingering connotation of “sitting behind a desk staring at a computer all day. My version of IT is much wider, sexier and much more involved than coding and hacking.

“The IT space has evolved rapidly,” she explained, noting that actual IT careers are less about intensive maths and physics calculations than they are about a holistic approach to business and a range of real-life scenarios.

“We have the world at our fingertips, we are interconnected, and it is an essential enabler of business. By changing the name, can we reach a whole new generation of girls and young women who want to be communicators, problem solvers and global entrepreneurs in an integrated corporate environment?”

Getting women into ICT may be one crucial goal, but keeping them there is also important, points out Petra Smith, virtual security consultant with Aura Information Security. “Representation matters,” she explained.

“Women and gender minorities need to see people like them succeeding. It isn't enough to interest young women to enter the industry. We also need to break down the barriers that keep women from advancing and becoming tomorrow's role models.”

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