Beyond the STEM Degree: How Women Can Climb the Cyber Ladder

Keys to success include taking advantage of resources, looking for inclusive organizations, focusing on reputation building, and keeping up-to-date on the latest security threats.

As we enter a new decade, there’s so much hope for what technology can accomplish—from sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) applications that decipher data to advanced cybersecurity techniques that stop threats before they can deploy. Despite these advancements, some organizations still find themselves stuck in the dark ages when it comes to advancing female representation in cyber-related fields.

According to the 2019 Women in Cybersecurity report by (ISC)², women represent just 24 percent of the cybersecurity workforce. A study by Kaspersky Labs reveals that only 23 percent of chief information security officers (CISOs) are female. It’s not enough for women to enter the cybersecurity field—they should have the opportunity to hold leadership positions, as well. Here are four steps women can take to set themselves up for a progressive cyber career:

1. Take advantage of resources at school: An article in The Atlantic reveals that fewer than 20 percent of undergraduate students use their school’s career centers for help during a job search. Students should use this resource for help with resumes, tips on how to ace an interview, and information on local job markets. These centers also host campus job fairs, where students can go to land on-the-spot interviews, allowing them to secure internships.  

In a field as large as cyber, students also should consult with their professors to figure out which industry is the right fit for them, or which career path could be the most fulfilling. By building a connection with professors beyond the syllabus, women can set up a mentorship to help with the job search and after graduation. Some colleges also provide formal mentorship programs specifically for women. For example, the University of Arizona offers a Women in STEM Mentorship Program.

2. Build your reputation: The adage, “It’s all about who you know,” can be demoralizing to students who don’t already have connections in cyber. Students should use opportunities such as internships to build their networks and brand themselves as hard workers. You never know who will be affected by your work. For example, interns could report directly to the manager of the Finance department, but the code they’re working on could help departments in other practices. Excellent performance translates to a positive reputation, which can lead to a full-time role. This is also a good practice for recent grads who want to make a lateral move at an organization. By knowing and helping people in other departments, you can build a reputation as someone who would make a great addition to any team.  

Being a high performer doesn’t mean being perfect all the time, though. A study in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology found that 38 percent of women perceived they did not live up to their own high standards at work. Instead of trying to be the perfect intern or employee, women should embrace making mistakes as a learning and mastery experience. They’ll find even the most seasoned professionals also make mistakes and use them as an opportunity to grow.

3. Be selective in your search: The current job market during the Coronavirus pandemic is tough for recent graduates, but it’s important to be selective about the organization you work for. Women can benefit from an organization that promotes inclusivity and diversity. One way to determine the diversity of a workforce is by looking at how many women and minorities hold C-suite leadership positions. Any company can add a page to its Website about the value of diversity, so be sure to do your homework.

Women also should look for organizations that have leadership development and mentorship programs. A 2019 report by McKinsey states the biggest obstacle women face in the workplace is the first step up to management. For every 100 men who received a promotion to management, only 72 women received a promotion to the same level. A formal leadership development program indicates the company wants to invest in its employees. And a formal mentorship program can give women guidance on how to approach challenges in the workplace.

4. Never stop learning: In the cyber domain, threats evolve at breakneck speed, so staying on top of the latest attack methods is key. Women also should find ways to participate in training programs at work to help build their skill sets. Advanced certification like Security+ can further validate the fundamental skills they’ll need to perform in most cybersecurity careers.

The number of unfilled jobs in cyber will rise to 3.5 million in 2021, based on data from Cybersecurity Ventures. Women will fill these entry-level vacancies upon graduation, but they should have the opportunity to rise to leadership levels as they gain experience. When starting out in their careers, women should take advantage of resources and look for inclusive organizations. They also should focus on building their reputations and keep up-to-date on the latest security threats. By following these four steps to achieve a leadership role in cybersecurity, women can help other women rise to the top in a male-dominated field.

Jamie Rubio’s current role as a software engineer at Lockheed Martin supports hardware and software integration at the National Cyber Range in Orlando, FL, and is critical to the security of the U.S. government, its defense, and its overall cybersecurity efforts. Rubio  is working on the next generation of tools to help the government stay ahead of cyber threats. She is mission focused, and her favorite thing about working at Lockheed Martin is being able to make a difference for U.S. military troops. She graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from the University of Central Florida.

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