Can WannaCry save the cybersecurity world from its gender divide?


I was a delegate at a recent technical conference in Australia. The rooms were full of the cybersecurity industry's brightest talent, all of whom were professionals at the cutting-edge of their craft, keen to discuss creative new ways to beat hackers, solve problems and develop their skills. The conference was billed to encourage growth and collaboration between world-class researchers, and leaders in the business and public-sector worlds. It was exciting, inspiring, and the atmosphere was electric.

I was one of the only women there.

Since moving to Australia from Iran to pursue my career in reverse engineering, I haven't failed to notice that I'm one of few women in the sea of men that makes up the IT security industry. And, with research demonstrating that overall just 11% of cybersecurity professionals are women, the stats indicate I'm not the only one to notice something's amiss.

So how have we got to the stage where so few women are entering one of the most exciting, challenging and positive industries out there? For my part, I think IT security would be better off with more female employees. And, I think that once more women have started to discover the IT security ‘buzz', it will quickly become a popular career choice among female candidates.

I'm one of the lucky ones that discovered this buzz on my own, and now I want to encourage more women to follow my lead.

Why cybersecurity needs women

There are plenty of reasons why the industry would benefit from having more female workers. Cybersecurity is all about problem solving, and in my experience women have a propensity for paying attention to detail, making them natural problem solvers and well-suited to the job (meaning no offense to my male co-workers, of course!).

For my part, I've always liked puzzles and board games. My sister and I used to make ‘escape room' activities in our house when we were growing up, and see who could find an escape the quickest. This developed into a love of programming as I grew older, and I soon found myself competing in national programming competitions to put myself to the test.

But cybersecurity isn't all about technical skills. It's about persistency, creativity and collaboration too. After all, new malware is becoming more sophisticated all the time. The creativity of malicious attackers is increasing, and the cybersecurity industry needs to be able to respond appropriately, together.

Working in cybersecurity you therefore need to think differently, all of the time. Working collaboratively with a range of people from diverse backgrounds – including men and women alike – is vital for developing new approaches and cracking the problems we face. Having more women on board will automatically add a wider-range of tools to the cybersecurity arsenal, because women often tackle problems in a different way to men.

Why women need cybersecurity (although they might not realize it yet)

The benefits to our industry of having more women on board are obvious, but equally, cybersecurity has a lot to give women too. It's an addictive job, and an incredibly rewarding one.

Crucially, working in cybersecurity gives you more than a job in an office. Cybersecurity gives me a lifestyle that my friends are envious of. I see so many of my female friends working 8-5 every day and living for the weekends. But I'm different to them. I'm passionate about my work and I enjoy every minute.

My friends might send and receive 100 emails a day but I can save thousands of people from the latest online scam in an hour. I know what I'd rather be doing, and the rewards are immense! Because it's always on, my job shapes my lifestyle. I'm constantly thinking of new ways to protect people or businesses from malicious malware, and I love it.

What's more, the very fact that cyber attackers don't work normal office hours means that my role is inherently flexible. To that end, you might find me working in a lab, a data centre, from an office, from home or even from my favourite café. The point is, this is a job that works for me, and I think many women are on the hunt for something like it.

Putting the pieces of the puzzle together

From the moment I started out at a local anti-virus company in Iran, fresh from my post-graduate education in computer networking, cybersecurity has been the perfect match for me.

But despite my passion for my role, this is a career that I nearly missed. I always knew I wanted to work in IT but throughout my education cybersecurity seemed shady, and a little bit mysterious. It was the unknown child of the IT industry, that evoked images of men sitting in the shadows attempting to hack systems, devices and businesses. There was no degree or formal training available, and I didn't come across a lot of information about the discipline until I already had a degree under my belt. I had to piece the puzzle together myself.

But cybersecurity is starting to step out of the shadows now, and that is making it a lot more appealing for women. The worldwide issues caused by WannaCry earlier this year have actually done some good in this respect - the malware's well-documented destruction highlighted the need for online security and painted cybersecurity experts as protectors of the online world.

Time for an image change

The image of the cybersecurity professional is changing, and WannaCry is one of the many reasons why this is the case. IT security is less elusive now than when I was first entering the world of work – according to our studies, over half of young women (58%) have come across cybersecurity on TV, radio and online news by the time they are 21, and 77% agree that what they've seen about the industry in media has been positive. So, it's a matter of converting this side-line interest into something more. 

Role models are a very important part of this conversion process, and with over two-thirds of young people admitting that they've never met anyone who works in cybersecurity, there is a distinct lack of them.

What's more, with half of women preferring to work in an environment that has an equal gender split, improving the visibility of the women that are already working in cybersecurity will help attract potential female employees – especially as two in three have thought more positively about having a cybersecurity career after meeting an IT Security professional.

Watch this space cybercriminals – not only are you bringing us into the limelight with your attention-grabbing malware developments, but our fresh recruits will soon be on their way to get you.

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