In male-dominated spaces like cybersecurity, women are more likely to be interrupted than men. In fact, men are three times more likely to interrupt women as they are to interrupt other men. But cybersecurity needs the voices and contributions of women to succeed; the cybersecurity skills gap widened by nearly 75% over the past year, and Gartner forecasts that by 2025, a lack of talent will be responsible for more than half of all significant cyberattacks.
Creating a more diverse and inclusive workforce will be critical to tightening the skills gap and shifting the power away from threat actors. However, according to a global Boston Consulting Group survey of 2,000 female STEM students, several obstacles still stand in the way of women succeeding in technical roles, including imposter syndrome and a low sense of belonging.
These obstacles mark long-standing, systemic STEM challenges that certainly can’t be solved overnight — but they can be alleviated by intentionally investing in gender-inclusive programs that promote mentorship, community and confidence. Cyber leaders and their organizations should be investing in mutually beneficial mentorship, creating spaces both within and outside of work for women to build strong community, and actively advocate for women to feel confident and valued by their contributions.
Mutual mentorship: Empowering both mentees and mentors
Mentorship is a powerful tool for professional growth and development, and when executed effectively, can create mutually beneficial professional relationships. Strong female mentors can serve as role models to women earlier in their careers, providing needed support, advice and friendship. Plus, mentoring programs dramatically improved promotion and retention rates for minorities and women — 15 to 38 percent as compared to non-mentored employees.
There are benefits for mentors as well: one study found that 87 percent of mentors and mentees feel empowered by the relationship and reported greater confidence and career satisfaction. And, it turns out that mentees and mentors are both promoted far more often (five times and six times, respectively) than those employees without mentors. Mentorship programs also enable mentors to connect with the next generation of women in STEM and provide a well-rounded picture of the challenges they’re facing.
For mentorship programs to succeed, organizations must ensure that mentors receive proper training in empathetic leadership and are equipped with the skills to provide meaningful guidance. By fostering an environment where women are encouraged to seek out mentors, ask questions and express their aspirations and insecurities, cybersecurity can begin to address the imposter syndrome and low sense of belonging that many women feel hinders their advancement in the field.
Creating spaces for community
Fostering a strong sense of community is essential for women in cybersecurity to feel like they belong and can show up authentically as themselves. This involves creating spaces both within and outside of work where women can connect, share their lived experiences and support one another. Employee resource groups (ERGs) dedicated to women are a great place to start and are a critical resource that every organization should invest in — especially male-dominated organizations. ERGs are fundamental to fostering a sense of belonging and promoting diversity within any company culture. Programming can include guest speakers, workshops, and even fun, outside-of-work activities like cocktail hours, group walks, and volunteer opportunities.
Beyond internal initiatives, organizations should actively support and sponsor attendance of industry-wide events and conferences that focus on women in tech. These industry gatherings provide opportunities for networking, professional development, and knowledge sharing. By engaging with the broader cybersecurity community, women can connect with role models, expand their networks, and gain exposure to various technical and leadership career paths.
Confidence is key
With women earning less than 72% of their male counterparts in the cybersecurity industry globally — with pay discrepancies as high as $19,950 in the first three years of experience — it’s not hard to understand why they often feel undervalued. To ensure women feel recognized and valued, cyber leaders must actively advocate for gender equality within their organizations. This starts by addressing unconscious biases and implementing strategies to promote a more inclusive work culture.
For example, managers should be trained to recognize and address common microaggressions such as women being interrupted by their male counterparts. If a manager notices a pattern of Stephen cutting off Heather in meetings, the manager can make a concerted effort to address the behavior and correct it by saying something like, “Stephen, let’s let Heather finish her thought and then we’ll circle back to you.” This helps to create space for women to confidently lend their voices and be heard.
To further foster confidence among female employees, it is also essential to recognize and celebrate their many achievements and contributions. This is especially important, as women are far less likely to tout their professional achievements than men, according to research from Harvard University. Organizations can uplift women through internal and external awards and recognition programs that specifically highlight the accomplishments of women in cybersecurity. When women see their efforts being acknowledged, they are more likely to feel empowered and motivated to take on new challenges.
Cyber leaders should also actively encourage women to participate in public speaking engagements and thought leadership opportunities. By amplifying women's voices and expertise, the industry can challenge the prevailing gender stereotypes and showcase the immense value that diversity brings to cybersecurity.
The bottom line
Creating a more diverse and inclusive workforce in cybersecurity is imperative to bridging the skills gap and countering cyber threats effectively. To achieve this, the industry must address the systemic challenges that women face and invest in gender-inclusive programs. By implementing mutually beneficial mentorship initiatives, establishing spaces for strong community building, and advocating for women to feel valued and confident, cybersecurity can attract and retain the best talent, regardless of gender.
As cyber leaders and organizations commit to these efforts, they will not only empower women in cybersecurity but also strengthen the industry as a whole. The collective intelligence, creativity and diverse perspectives of women will play a vital role in safeguarding business assets and creating a safer cyber landscape for everyone. By empowering women, we can pave the way for a more equitable and successful cybersecurity future.