A glass cliff: Gender gap
A glass cliff: Gender gap

Women bring new skill sets, but early encouragement, training in grade school and mentoring are all needed to succeed, reports James Hale.

How bad is the gender imbalance in the security industry? It sounds like the setup for a punchline, but although the question elicits a laugh from Kris Lovejoy, general manager of Marlton, N.J.-based IBM Security Services, it really is not a joke.

“There's no balance whatsoever,” she says. “Systemically, we don't have enough people in security in general, but there are very few women.”

How few? Few enough that Lysa Myers, a security researcher for ESET, the Slovakian company with U.S. headquarters in San Diego, recalls a conference with so few females in attendance that the women's washroom was converted for male use.

“There's a pretty dramatic shortage of women,” she says. “Most women I meet outside the business are not even aware of security as a career choice.”

OUR EXPERTS: Fostering women 

Vanessa Dawson, co-founder and CEO, Girls Raising 

Michelle Dennedy, vice president and chief privacy officer, McAfee, an Intel company 

Jamesha Fisher, DevOps system administrator, CloudPassage 

Kris Lovejoy, general manager, IBM Security Services 

Lysa Myers, security researcher, ESET 

Karen Wensley, lecturer, University of Waterlooy

“It's so true,” adds Michelle Dennedy, vice president and chief privacy officer of McAfee, an Intel company, based in Santa Clara, Calif. “We can usually refer to other women in the industry by their first names and everyone knows who we're talking about.”

What is more, Dennedy says she has seen a distressing trend toward women dropping out of the privacy sector, too. “It's not a glass ceiling, it's more like a glass cliff. In many cases, there are enough women in the pipeline, but they are dropping off at engineering schools. It's exhausting to be the only woman in the room. The attitudes you sometimes have to face can be daunting.”

As an example, she tells a story about riding in an elevator in a Las Vegas hotel, on her way to give an early-morning keynote address at a conference. Focused on the task ahead, she paid little attention to the group of men trying to chat her up.

“You're coming to breakfast with us,” one cajoled her. When she walked off with only the merest of acknowledging smiles, he called after her: “Bitch!”

“Why is anyone surprised when women avoid male-dominated environments?” she says.

The numbers show that women largely avoid all aspects of the information and communications technology sector. Statistics from the National Science Foundation show that about 25 percent of those employed as computer scientists are female, while women make up about 17 percent of the engineering profession. While women comprise 47 percent of the U.S. workforce, only one in five software developers is female. Thirty years ago women earned 37 percent of all computer science bachelors degrees, today that number is just 12 percent. By 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor predicts that 1.4 million jobs will be created in computer-related fields, but American graduates are on pace to fill just 29 percent of them.