The participation of women in STEM careers has, for decades, remained a burning question that organizations across sectors have struggled to address. The percentage of women among STEM workers has increased from a mere 8% in 1970 to 27% in the U.S. in 2019, but it is far from ideal as women make up 48% of the U.S. workforce. Let’s look at how women are faring in tech and cybersecurity careers and see if cybersecurity gives women better opportunities and scope for growth when compared to the overall tech sector.
How Are Women Faring in the Cybersecurity Sector?
The (ISC)2 Cybersecurity Workforce Study 2021, based on data obtained from thousands of cybersecurity professionals in North America, Europe, LATAM, and APAC regions, estimates that the global cybersecurity workforce is approximately 4.19 million at present, up from 2.8 million in 2019 and 3.48 million in 2020. The average salary before taxes in the U.S. has also increased from $83,000 in 2020 to $90,900 this year.
However, the percentage of women among cybersecurity professionals in these regions is still approximately 25%. Considering the cybersecurity industry still needs 2.72 million more professionals urgently so that organizations can fill up crucial vacancies, the lack of women in the industry is contributing to the burgeoning cybersecurity gap that organizations aren’t able to address at the scale required. (ISC)2 said that even though 700,000 professionals entered the workforce in the past year, the workforce gap reduced by just 400,000, indicating that the global demand continues to outpace supply.
Another factor that remains to be addressed is the percentage of women in leadership roles in the cybersecurity industry. In 2021, women made up just 17% of Fortune 500 CISO positions and there is only one female CISO in the top ten U.S. companies. However, it cannot be said that the participation of women isn’t improving quickly. The percentage of women in Fortune 500 CISO positions was a paltry 14% last year.
How Are Women Faring in the IT Sector?
Even though the technology industry underwent significant transformation during the pandemic-affected months, it continues to be relatively hostile to women workers, despite recent changes to how people work and the emergence of new career opportunities in the industry. According to the 2022 State of IT report from Spiceworks, 92% of organizations in EMEA and North America will either grow their IT teams in 2022 or keep them at existing levels, indicating a massive rise in demand for IT professionals in the year ahead. However, the script looks entirely different if we just look at career growth opportunities for women.
During the pandemic, more women (28%) switched temporarily to working from home than men (27%) and more women (17%) earned a tech certification compared to men (12%). However, only 15% of them expect a salary raise from their current employer in 2022 compared to 27% of men. What’s worse is that in 2022, more women (15%) plan to depart from IT and look for a new career compared to just 5% of male workers.
“Only 11% of women represented in our study received a raise since the COVID-19 crisis began, compared to 18% of men. Our data suggests that women don’t expect to make up the gap in the future once conditions improve, either,” Spiceworks said.
According to a U.S. government census, women made up 27% of all STEM workers in 2019, but this figure didn’t tell the entire truth. Among computer and engineering occupations, which represent 80% of the STEM workforce, women formed just 25% and 15% of the workforce respectively. Even if we take into account the 25% figure in computer occupations, the government says this figure “actually decreased between 1990 and 2019.”
The reason why the participation of women in STEM careers touched 27% in 2019 is that they form a majority of the nation’s social scientists. However, this field only represents 3% of the overall STEM workforce. Even in terms of pay parity vis-a-vis men, the census found that women earned more than men in only one STEM occupation: computer network architects.
What this indicates is that the IT industry has to make real and measurable progress in ensuring that more women join the field in the future. It cannot be said that women don’t prefer STEM careers. According to Pew Research, women make up 40% of physical scientists in the U.S., 48% of life scientists, 47% of mathematical workers, and 74% of healthcare practitioners and technicians.
What the industry needs to look at is that the representation of women in computer science and in engineering is very similar to the percentage of women who graduated in these fields. According to Pew Research, women earned 53% of STEM college degrees in 2018, but formed just 22% of engineering graduates and 19% of computer science graduates. In contrast, 85% of the bachelor’s degrees in health-related fields were earned by women.
As far as leadership roles are concerned, the 17% share of women in Fortune 500 CISO positions sounds incredible when compared to the representation of women in leadership roles in the tech industry as a whole. According to data collated by the Women Business Collaborative (WBC), women make up only 8.2% of Fortune 500 CEOs, 7.3% of Fortune 1000 CEOs, 5.6% of Russell 3000 CEOs, and 7.4% of CEOs at private companies with revenue over $1 billion.
“While the numbers for women in leadership are moving in the right direction, with the Fortune 500 up to 8.2% from 6.6% in 2019, progress is still too slow and not reflective of the nation. Women of color hold only one percent of CEO positions across the Fortune 1000,” the report said.
According to Statista, the percentage of women in actual technology jobs at Big Tech companies, namely Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft, is less than 25%. Women also hold 26.5% of executive, senior-level and management positions in S&P 500 companies. The representation of women at Big Tech companies in terms of overall workforce (deep blue), leadership jobs ( yellow) and tech jobs (sky blue) is as shown in the graph below.
Can Cybersecurity Become a Key Vector for Woman Empowerment?
The cybersecurity industry has the capability and offers a lot of scope for women to thrive in the industry. In recent years, the percentage of women in leadership roles and in cybersecurity jobs has certainly improved. However, Arti Lalwani, risk management and privacy knowledge leader at A-LIGN, believes the progress has occurred at a snail’s pace and a lot more needs to be done by organizations within the industry to help women grow and take up leadership roles.
Lalwani, who now determines the strategic direction of A-LIGN’s ISO practices and manages a team of over 20 auditors that conduct management system compliance audits, was recently named as one of the 2021 Women Leaders in Technology by Consulting Magazine for her Excellence in Client Services. Even though she grew from senior consultant to practice lead at A-LIGN in record time, she says her journey wasn’t easy.
Women have the skills and the desire. It’s up to organizations to support them
Lalwani says that the cybersecurity industry is now aware that women are ready and want to join leadership roles. They want to showcase their talent. However, it is not only about women being suitable for leadership roles, but also about companies, as in how open they are to admit women into such roles.
It is not enough for a company to appoint women in executive roles just to tick gender diversity boxes. Lalwani says that organizations should look at leveraging women’s specific skill sets and talents to transform, and not just hire them as a window-dressing exercise. “If I were to choose between a qualified man and a woman who does not possess similar skills or expertise, I would choose the man,” she says.
“I am not saying a company should hire a woman even if she’s less qualified than a competing male applicant. But organizations should also consider the different skill sets that women come with. They display greater attention to detail, they are better at multitasking, they can better organize things. Not every candidate will come with years of experience, so organizations should look at how they are selecting them. The screening process cannot be reliant on what’s written in a piece of paper.”
It’s hard to find female role models or mentors in the cybersecurity industry
Lalwani told Toolbox that ever since she joined the cybersecurity industry, she never had the opportunity to learn from a senior female mentor. She, however, is determined to change that. “One thing that I’ve tried to do on my part is to make sure that the women who report to me always feel comfortable in this industry. They will come across situations that will hinder them, so I teach them how to handle themselves because at the end of the day, it’s about how we handle ourselves through those problems.
“Out of 20 people on my team, there are five women. There has been an improvement over the years because when I started on this team, I was the only female. I had a lot of things stacked up against me, including my age. So, to step into a leadership role, I’ve had to prove myself ten times over.
“Now that I have several women reporting to me, I try to be a good mentor to them, help them learn as they complete their tasks, and guide them towards fulfilling their aspirations. My biggest fear is that they may go through something that I’ve gone through, so I try to make sure that that’s not going to be the case.”
Why are so few girls choosing computer science courses at the college level?
Pew Research found that women earned 53% of STEM college degrees in 2018 but formed just 22% of engineering graduates and 19% of computer science graduates. We asked Lalwani what prevents young girls from choosing computer science and engineering as career choices.
“To make more girls take up computer science and engineering at the college level, there needs to be greater diversity among faculty and mentors. There should be more female mentors and teachers in colleges who can guide young girls through these fields,” she said, adding that the presence of too many male teachers and mentors at universities gives women the impression that technology is a man’s job.
She also said that women have low confidence and less self-esteem in their 20s but improve by their 30s. In contrast, men have the highest confidence levels in their early 20s. The lack of confidence, coupled with huge gender disparity in the technology industry, is a major factor why so few women choose computer science and engineering at college level.
Lalwani added that young girls who love science but lack the confidence to choose computer science courses should have access to female mentors who can help them overcome the “I am scared” mindset. If she were a mentor, Lalwani would tell her the following:
Why do you feel that you’re not going to do well in the industry? Who told you otherwise?
Go into it. You’ll learn from the job itself. What makes the person next to you any better?
You should give the career a shot and get all the opportunities you need to become better.
Feeling you’re not going to do well is not a good enough answer. You’ll have to try.
Is the cybersecurity industry doing enough to tackle sexual harassment at the workplace?
“There is a lot that still needs to be done to tackle sexual harassment within the industry. If I’ve gone through this in the U.S. in this day and age, there are so many women who’ve also gone through this, and they are not speaking up. Until every woman feels safe in the industry and until the time comes when we won’t have to run awareness programs for women, there’ll always be scope for more effort to handle this,” Lalwani says.
“Just because you have an HR department at your organization doesn’t mean these incidents will stop. I don’t see them stopping. With all due respect to HR professionals, I think the priority of HR is to save the organization. Even if a woman employee walks to the HR to raise an issue, I think it’s going to be difficult to get HR to support her. It also gets difficult when the accused employee holds a senior position. It’s about his word vs your word. Women also get labeled right away when sexual harassment complaints are made.”
Bottomline: Is the cybersecurity industry ready for ambitious and assertive women leaders?
Lalwani says a lot of women have successfully charted their path in the industry, but she has felt that even though a lot of men have supported their female colleagues, many are still not willing to take orders from or work with women who are highly dedicated or demand high performance from their teams.
“I always had a very strong personality, so I was labelled the B word a lot of times. Once you get into that stereotype it’s very hard to pull out of it.
“I get things done in a certain way, I follow the rules to the T, and I make sure that everything is done the way they should be done. Sometimes that doesn’t fly with people that are living their lives and just keeping their jobs and not moving anywhere. I am motivated and I push others to be successful, but I then realize there are people who don’t want to be pushed.
“I should have learned to chill out more,” she said.