Women in Cybersecurity Share Advice on Finding Success in the Field
By Anjali Stenquist on 09/14/2020
We all have those “Ah-ha!” moments of clarity in life. Often these mental breakthroughs involve something relatively mundane, but for Brookelynn Ritter, that moment helped spark a major change in career focus. Ritter was working as a web developer when she attended the RSA Conference on IT security with a friend. At the conference, she learned about a data breach at a hotel where a hacker was able to access information through a Wi-Fi-enabled thermometer found in the lobby’s fish tank.
“It was kind of history from there,” says Ritter, now the business operations manager at Curricula. “I was in awe. I wanted to be part of the solution and I was ready to explore and learn as much as I could about cybersecurity in my free time.”
Cybersecurity is a fascinating, fast paced, and rewarding field. But only a small fraction—some estimate just 24 percent—of the talented professionals in cybersecurity are women and nonbinary people.1 For those looking to enter this field, that imbalance may be enough to give some pause: Will it be harder for me to find success in this field? Is it going to be difficult to navigate a male-dominated field? Is it worth it?
It’s only natural to wonder and worry, but we’re here to help with some of these concerns. We spoke with leaders in the field of cybersecurity and have compiled their advice for entering—and succeeding—in the field of cybersecurity as a woman or nonbinary person.
“Women and non-binary members of the community still deal with harassment both in the office and online,” says Karen Walsh, owner of Allegro Solutions. “Many tech companies still have cultures rooted in sexism and lack policies that can promote women.”
While there’s certainly room for improvement within the field, that doesn’t mean Walsh recommends steering clear.
“The community and the support for those who have non-traditional career paths and identities is something that you don’t see in a lot of other industries,” Walsh says. “I’ve worked in academia, banking, and insurance—and the infosec community is the one that has been the most welcoming from a professional and personal level.”
Expert advice for women in cybersecurity
If you’re looking to call the field of cybersecurity home as a woman or nonbinary person, it never hurts to hear from those in your shoes who are already established—here’s what they had to say.
Find your people
In a field with such a lopsided balance in representation, we heard from many that there is a strong culture of mutual support and compassion among the women and nonbinary individuals in cyber security.
“It’s easier to build connections and networks with other women in the field, because there is an immediate common ground and inherent bond,” says Ritter. “I haven’t come across another woman in the field who isn’t willing to help or offer guidance. Camaraderie seems to come before competition in this industry.”
“We all have a story about how and why we ended up in this industry, and, in most cases, it was not “fate” or an accident, it was on purpose. It takes dedication, commitment, patience and probably some trips through the trenches.”
Ritter says she landed her first opportunity in cybersecurity two years after she’d hoped to—and that breakthrough is something she credits to “amazing” mentors and persistence. The help and support she received from other women in the field is contagious and many see it as a duty to lend a hand.
“When you do ‘make it’ and meet another woman who is exceeding in any role in cyber, it feels impossible not to honor and support that,” Ritter says. “We’re all on the same team, we share the same struggles, and we’re going to be outnumbered for a while—why not stick together?”
Looking for a good place to start marking connections? We’ve put together a resource list of organizations working with women and gender diverse people in the field of cyber security. Some offer training, conferences, or other networking opportunities:
- Women’s Society of Cyberjutsu
- Women Who Code
- Executive Women’s Forum
- Women in Identity
- The Diana Initiative
- SANS Women’s Immersion Academy
Pay it forward
Because mentorship plays such a critical role for women and nonbinary people in the field of cybersecurity, it is also important to support those around you as you find success.
“Get out and inspire the next generation,” advises Chelsea Jarvie, director and cybersecurity consultant at Neon Circle. “The phrase ‘if she can see it, she can be it’ is so true, and we all need to be ambassadors for the cybersecurity field.”
Jarvie encourages those who are established in the field to show the next generation of young women that working in this field is a viable option and that there are others like them who have found success.
“Hopefully in the next 10 to 15 years, we will have a diverse cybersecurity workforce,” Jarvie says.
Explore and find your niche
Cybersecurity is a broad technical field that covers a growing range of specialized roles and focus areas. While that variety may seem intimidating as you start learning more about the field, that variety can also help you in the long run. There are opportunities to focus your work expertise in areas like cloud security, infrastructure security, penetration testing, data privacy, encryption and more—and that deep expertise can be what helps set you apart.
“It’s important to become familiar with how vast and varied the industry is and pick a niche that you find particularly interesting,” says Ritter. “It’s easier to succeed and earn respect as a ‘growing expert’ than as a generalist.”
Continue to learn
“Continuing education is the cornerstone of your career,” says Stacy Eldridge, founder of Silicon Prairie Cyber Services LLC. “What you learned during your degree program is only the foundation to your industry knowledge.”
Eldridge emphasizes that it’s important to keep up with the latest trends, methods, and technologies in the field and keep learning—and learning doesn’t always have to mean registering for expensive additional classes.
“There are plenty of podcasts, blogs, and vlogs out there from cybersecurity thought leaders that are on the front lines churning out content that can keep you on the top of your game and ready to meet the next challenge,” Eldridge says.
Unfortunately, as a minority within a very homogenous industry, it’s likely you’ll be slighted or judged unfairly by—consciously or unconsciously—biased colleagues. There are those who will underestimate your expertise simply because you do not fit into their particular image of a cybersecurity expert.
“I think the most common is the experience of 'mansplaining'— the assumption that certain topics have to be dumbed down or over-explained when conversing with women,” reflects Ritter.
Ritter says she’s often seen men in her field—even those who admit they don’t have the expertise—be perceived as better suited to pick up on topics like infrastructure and network security more quickly than their female counterparts. That obviously can be a huge source of frustration, and as a result many women in the field tend to go above and beyond to compensate.
“Most of the women who I know in cyber collect a library of acronyms behind their names, racking up as many certifications as possible to demonstrate their intelligence,” Ritter says. “Meanwhile, men seem to have less formal training, but more opportunities to step into critical cybersecurity roles.”
These small yet frustrating experiences can add up to a significant impact on your sense of self-worth in a male dominated industry. But don’t let a potentially unfair culture be what determines your worth—the positive relationships you’ve formed within your field can help you maintain a realistic view of your strengths.
“Imposter syndrome is real, but don’t let it deter you or hold you back,” says Jarvie. “Even if you feel you are in the minority, you’ve worked hard to get your seat at the table so be heard and contribute your knowledge and insight. Having a mentor can really help in those times when you doubt yourself, so get one. Gender doesn’t matter as long as it’s someone who will support and challenge you.”
Take the next step with confidence
Entering a field dominated by people who are different from you can seem intimidating, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find success. While cybersecurity—and many other fields—have room for improvement when it comes to representation and fair treatment, change doesn’t happen overnight. The field needs strong women and nonbinary professionals to continue building on the work of those who’ve already started blazing this trail.
If you’re considering taking up the mantel, you’re probably curious about the educational background you’d need to succeed. Learn more about some key reasons for advancing your education in our article, “Is a Cyber Security Degree Worth It? Facts You Can’t Ignore."