Mentorships matter to closing the cyber talent and gender gaps

Today’s columnist, Teresa Shea of Raytheon Intelligence & Space, says groups such as Girls Who Code play a major role in attracting more diversity to the cyber workforce.

A digital talent gap that spans industries was evident long before the pandemic. Now more than ever, there’s a great need for a strong cybersecurity workforce that can stay ahead of growing threats, especially focused on cybercrime, U.S. networks, and critical infrastructure.

 When looking to build out security teams, it’s crucial to recruit talent with differing skill sets, mindsets and experiences, as team diversity ensures that problems are addressed from all angles, instead of a singular plane of thought. However, the security industry has a diversity problem – particularly when it comes to women. 

According to industry data, women only represent 20% of the cybersecurity workforce. But, data also shows that 63% of women in the field planned a career in cybersecurity at least as early as college, and more than two-thirds (68%), plan to stay in the field for the remainder of their careers.

 Perhaps one solution to recruiting and retaining female cybersecurity professionals lies in the singular concept: strong mentorship programs.

 Start mentorships early

 Knowing that most female cyber professionals commit to their career from a young age, businesses and industry leaders must look for ways to engage with them during their formative years.

 Nonprofit organizations such as Girls Who Code have engaged thousands of girls and young women, increasing their interest in the field. They provide female-led, curriculum-based programs that push girls to think strategically and dive deeper into computer science, while also offering mentors that can help them succeed. Some programs begin as early as the third grade.

However, knowing the immense need for security professionals within the industry, coupled with the persistent threat of emerging attacks, organizations must go a step further.

 We are beginning to see a rise in industry-specific educational institutions to address this. For example, the Alabama School of Cyber Technology and Engineering, founded in 2018, uses a curriculum designed specifically for students seeking advanced engineering and cyber technology studies.

In addition to incorporating cybersecurity and STEM into the foundation of curriculums, we must also look to spark interest and educate students through multiple methods, including certificate programs, hack-a-thons, and online learning.

 The importance of college mentorships 

Computer science remains a male-dominated field, with women only earning 18% of computer science bachelor degrees in the U.S. – and many are not choosing to pursue a cybersecurity career. This pinpoints the greater need to foster a passion for security in college and keep it alive as students explore professional avenues. While many universities have cybersecurity and coding clubs, students often can’t test their skills in real-world scenarios, and do not have access to industry professionals outside of their advisers – two factors that could deter women from pursuing cybersecurity.

 Events like the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition (NCCDC) aim to change the norm when it comes to college cybersecurity training. This bracket-style competition brings together college students from across the country to test their cybersecurity capabilities in real-world business scenarios while professionals launch attacks against their networks – providing technical education, industry experience and the opportunity to connect with mentors. 

 In addition to volunteering for NCCDC, I encourage fellow cyber professionals to support female computer science majors by reviewing their resumes, offering general career advice, and widening their network by connecting them with other strong female role models in the industry. 

Retaining female talent for a secure future

 Once female cybersecurity professionals have made it to the workplace, what’s next? Women in leadership positions must take the initiative to support and foster their growth within the organization. However, these organic relationships are not enough to retain talent. A recent study of 3,000 professionals across industries found that only half have ever had any mentoring in their careers and, among those who have, only 25% were formally assigned.

 Knowing this, company leaders must develop official programs that will help their female employees feel supported in the workplace. They can accomplish this through employee resource groups, formal mentorship assignments and ongoing professional development opportunities. 

Female security leaders are crucial to the protection of our country and have played a pivotal role in the history of cybersecurity. Pioneers like Elizebeth Smith Friedman, who was instrumental in code breaking across multiple wars, and Ann Caracristi, who played a critical role in breaking the purple code in World War II, may not be well known by the general public, but are recognized as role models within the industry. They demonstrate just how important diversity in the workforce is and how female cyber professionals can advance our nation’s security.

 No doubt, the industry’s gender gap will not disappear by itself. It will take a concerted effort from individual female professionals, non-profit organizations and buy-in from corporate leadership to turn the tide and create an equal workforce where women can thrive. It’s a call to action for each of us to reach out to students and spark the interest and passion for this exciting field.

 Teresa Shea, vice president of cyber offensive and defensive experts, Raytheon Intelligence & Space

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