Jovi Umawing, Malware Analyst at Malwarebytes, looks back at her own experience working in cybersecurity and explains how we can get more women involved in the sector.
International Women’s Day is a good chance to take stock of where we’re at, how far we’ve come – from marching the streets of New York City demanding voting rights in 1908 – and, more importantly, how much further we have to go, especially in the tech industry.
This year already feels like the year of the woman. We’ve celebrated the 100th anniversary of some women getting the chance to vote in the UK, gender pay reporting legislations will roll out and of course, Times Up! gaining huge support following the #MeToo movement.
Working in cybersecurity, a heavily male-dominated industry, I’m fortunate to not have experienced discrimination based on my gender. Well, not that I’m aware of at least.
What does persist is unconscious bias. After working in the industry for over 15 years, and for eight of those working as a threat analyst, a lot of my research is picked up by the international press. As such, being cited for my work is normal. What isn’t normal is constantly having to correct journalists that I’m a woman, not a man.
When I was first referred to as “he” in articles years ago, I let it go with a chuckle, thinking to myself “I’m sure they didn’t mean that.”
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But it kept on happening, and I grew increasingly confused and frustrated. I know there was no malicious intent in this, but it’s assumptions like this that need to be addressed. It might seem harmless, and one may be quick to dismiss this all together, but such misconceptions can seep into other cracks of society and have a knock-on effect on hiring decisions.
Correcting journalists, in my case, is my own small way of addressing a particular unconscious bias. We all hold biases in general, but without talking about and challenging them, mindsets will never change.
We can also shake off such biases by encouraging more women to work in cybersecurity and tech. If we see more females in these industries, the belief that they’re ‘all men’ will eventually fade.
Encouragement must begin at a younger age. A recent report by Tech City UK revealed that young women are put off by jobs in technology. This is largely due to them believing they lack the skills needed and not having enough self-belief. I can empathise with this, as I, too, struggle with imposter syndrome even after 15 years of being in the industry, as do 70% of successful people – from Maya Angelou to Meryl Streep. Imposter syndrome is the belief that you don’t think you’re good enough at your job, and one day someone will ‘catch you out’.
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However, if you’re a woman considering a career in cybersecurity (or any STEM industry for that matter), push those baseless insecurities aside and take the plunge. Feeling inadequate for “not knowing enough” or “not being techie enough” can be addressed with continuous learning.
Trust me, no one in cybersecurity today came in claiming they know everything they needed to know. Possessing good communication skills, critical thinking, and an open mind can already set one up for success in this industry.
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If you’re considering a career in cybersecurity, the first step to take is to get in touch with someone in the industry to get a real insight into what it’s like – the good points and the bad. Doing so can help you address doubts you may be having if you’re unsure if the career move you want to make is right for you. You can find plenty of people on social media that would be more than happy to help.
I’d also recommend getting as much training as you can by committing to continuing to learn even after you graduate. For instance, I’m taking online courses to learn about data privacy law – an area I’ve got a growing interest in.
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Lastly, get yourself a mentor to help steer you through tricky challenges and in general, a good sounding board. My first mentors were my colleagues and boss. The advice they’ve given and challenges they’ve helped me through has been invaluable. Building a support network around you can be a tremendous help as well, especially if you’re an introvert like me.
Often, I’ve found peers in the industry I know are introverts too – this can mean conversations about inequality just don’t happen. But this has to change if we want to continue progressing and encouraging more young women to consider it a viable career choice.
What can you do to help?
This International Women’s Day, my challenge to readers is find out what small gestures you can make to address the imbalance in the cybersecurity industry, whether it’s speaking up for a female colleague if she’s being spoken over or calling someone out if they’ve said something that makes you feel uncomfortable.
What’s remarkable is the power of the female collective. When women come together and support one another, you’ve got a group that can tackle anything. It’s a force to be reckoned with.
So, in line with #PressforProgress, the theme for this year’s commemoration, I encourage you to speak out against inequality. It’s a powerful way we can continue making strides towards a gender-balanced cybersecurity and tech industry and make it a no-brainer career choice for our women of the future.