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The story of the young cybersecurity mogul who spent his youth tearing apart computers has been told so many times it’s almost a cliché. He started coding in the family garage. He graduated top of his class with a degree in computer science. He launched his own startup (also from the garage), and the rest is history.
Fortunately, this isn’t the only way to launch a successful career in cybersecurity. Unfortunately, the persistence of this narrative tends to deter those who don’t feel like they fit into the “traditional” mould. Too often this applies to women – and although some women achieve titles such as CTO, CIO or CISO, the cybersecurity industry remains heavily male-dominated. The field of cybersecurity is still struggling to attract women, largely because they have trouble imagining themselves in it.
Successful women in cybersecurity should not be exceptions, especially today, at a time when the field is experiencing explosive growth and talent is in high demand. Cybersecurity companies today also often cite diversity as a priority, with a stated goal of bringing new perspectives to the table. To get there, it’s time to dispel the myths that fuel cybersecurity’s intimidating reputation and tear down the false barriers to entry that keep women out.
Myth #1: You must have a degree in computer science to work in cybersecurity
Despite what many people may believe, cybersecurity is something you can potentially just fall in. Many cybersecurity professionals have undergraduate degrees in fields ranging from English to sociology. Some might start out as a sales rep or pharmacy technician. It’s true that succeeding in cybersecurity requires a great passion for the field, but that doesn’t necessarily mean spending your formative years preparing and following a conventional path.
A degree in computer science can be helpful, but it is far from mandatory. That’s not to say that degrees and certifications aren’t important, but skills can be taught. Ultimately, what defines a good security professional is how they approach problem solving. For example, a degree in math or philosophy can provide a foundation for practiced logic and problem solving that translates incredibly well into cybersecurity.
Dedicated self-directed learning can also help fill knowledge gaps that hinder a career in cybersecurity. One thing that successful leaders tend to have in common is a willingness to keep learning. If things like programming languages, malware analysis, ethical hacking, or other relevant topics interest you, there are ways to gain that knowledge outside of a traditional degree program. Take the initiative – self-training and certification can set candidates apart as motivated performers. A growing number of job candidates are coming in with self-taught skills, a history of computer-related volunteer work, and boot camp certifications. Knowledge does not just come from a university.
Myth #2: Cybersecurity is a male domain
Despite having the qualifications, skills, and dedication to succeed in cybersecurity, women can be held back by the idea that it’s a male domain. And while the field continues to be dominated by men, it is far from exclusive to them. Women currently make up nearly 20% of the cybersecurity workforce. It may not seem like much, but in 2013 women made up just 11% of the cybersecurity workforce. The trend is therefore rapidly moving in the right direction. If there was ever a time to step into the field, it’s now.
This is underscored by the fact that today’s women are more likely to complete university than men, representing a significant shift in gender parity and a key indicator for the future of the workforce. . But even armed with a higher education, many women still face impostor syndrome, especially in a male-dominated field like cybersecurity. They often feel inadequate, even with a proven track record of success. Tech leaders have traditionally been portrayed as male figures, and it’s easy to see why women often struggle internally with measuring themselves. Finding the right person and the right company culture can make a big difference.
Companies with a strong values-driven culture that emphasizes professional development, support, and constructive feedback are critical to success. It’s also important that women support each other, serving as both mentors and cheerleaders to others when they step onto the pitch. There are allies throughout this industry, and they will remain – after all, two-thirds of women in cybersecurity say they plan to stay there for the rest of their careers.
Myth #3: Cybersecurity requires me to code or hack
It is true that there are cybersecurity roles that require coding or hacking skills. But they are much more numerous than the posts which do not have one. Unfortunately, many cybersecurity job listings include requirements that appear to be designed for a mythical unicorn who can code, hack, and figure out any job in the industry. This can be particularly daunting for women, who studies show tend to underestimate their own qualifications.
Companies need to be more flexible in their job descriptions, otherwise many women won’t even apply. On the other hand, potential candidates should understand that while cybersecurity job postings may give the impression that only a select few are qualified enough to apply, this is not the case. The tech industry is facing a severe talent shortage, and it’s the most flexible time ever for candidates looking to break into the field.
Today, there are nearly 600,000 unfilled cybersecurity jobs in the United States alone. Jobs are open at all levels and many organizations are investing in training programs to bring their employees up to speed. This is an era marked by investment in employee skills, especially in the area of technology. The days of traditional educational settings are over; cybersecurity recruiters are looking for candidates who are a perfect match with the technical skills of the position and above all the right attitude.
In the world of cybersecurity, any experience is a good experience. An entry-level job as a cyber threat analyst may focus primarily on reporting, but it can be put to good use in more hands-on tech support work. The industry needs talent, and there will always be opportunities to expand your role and take on new responsibilities if you wish. When these opportunities arise, you just have to be the one raising your hand. Sometimes all it takes is the will to volunteer.
Enter the field
The field of cybersecurity is changing rapidly. With the right dedication, skills, and support systems, today’s women are succeeding in all areas of industry. Old barriers to entry like the requirement for certain degrees, the idea that it’s “a man’s domain” or recruiters with unrealistic expectations should no longer keep women awake at night.
Women are driving some of the most important cybersecurity operations and innovations today. They are expected to drive even greater industry progress over the next five, 10 and 20 years. From entry-level to C-suite, they are already working. There is a significant opportunity for After women to play a role in that future.
To anyone unsure whether to seek cybersecurity: it’s time to raise your hand. If you wanted to raise your hand yesterday but didn’t, raise it today. Whether it’s volunteering for a project, changing roles, or going for a job interview, the best way to launch your career in cybersecurity is to jump in headlong. Who is the game?
Heather Gantt-Evans is SailPoint’s CISO.
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