Advice for women in cybersecurity or those aspiring to join the industry.
N2K logoNov 7, 2023

An introduction to this article appeared in the monthly Creating Connections newsletter put together by the women of The CyberWire. This is a guest-written article. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, not necessarily the CyberWire, Inc.

Advice for women in cybersecurity or those aspiring to join the industry.

If you were to offer advice to women in our industry or perhaps some encouragement for those interested in joining cybersecurity as a career, what would you tell them? If you had a chance to go back to your former self and offer some words of wisdom about how to approach your career journey, do you know what you would say? We assembled some thoughts and quotes from women in our industry to share.

Melissa Bischoping, Director of Endpoint Security Research, Tanium

We have decades of studies demonstrating that more diverse teams yield stronger outcomes and increase innovation. This requires bringing women into the workforce across all levels and creating opportunities for women to see someone who looks like them at varying levels of leadership. By creating teams with greater diversity and actively removing employees who demonstrate bias or harassment, you spark a cultural change that grows more inclusive over time. This has a snowball effect of bringing the most diverse talent pool to your application portals, giving you the best chance of hiring innovators and leaders. The most successful professionals I know in this industry analyze the demographics of companies where they are considering applying to understand how they prioritize and demonstrate diversity across multiple minority groups. A diverse workforce signals to them that an organization is leading by example and not only hiring but also retaining a diverse culture. 

I'm a huge supporter and advocate for identifying and recruiting from non-traditional tech pipelines. I took a "scenic route" into technology, and my prior professional experiences in retail, medical transcription, sales, and customer service are all essential to the empathy and understanding I have for business problems today. I have had immense success but found it challenging to even break in the door as a former single mother and career changer who completed college after many of her peers. Recruit from community colleges and tech nonprofits who foster a community of research, practice, and skill-building to help close the talent gap. There are thousands of individuals like me from diverse non-traditional backgrounds who will be a force multiplier in your organization because of their drive and tenacity. I'm a huge supporter of the National Cyber League, which allows high school and college students to demonstrate their proficiency in a range of cyber skills regardless of what university they can afford to attend. Recruiters love the opportunity to directly engage NCL competitors for jobs because they have a verifiable report of their skills and knowledge and demonstrated commitment to learning and collaboration.

 I've also worked with Women's Society of Cyberjutsu and WiCyS, both nonprofits which seek to create opportunities for mentorship, interview practice, skill building workshops, and public speaking opportunities across multiple career levels. I have seen women from these organizations leverage these expansive networks to find new jobs, recruit talent, or identify growth opportunity.

Tiffany Flackes-Burton, Manager Internal Projects (Services), Optiv

Don’t be intimidated — our voices are absolutely needed and valued in this space. A vast array of opportunities exist — from highly technical to strategic to visionary roles. When I joined Optiv, I did not have previous experience in cyber. However, I was able to pivot and learn the industry through strong mentorship, practical experiences and formal training.

Dara Gibson, Senior Cyber Insurance Manager, Optiv

Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle! We can strive to learn from others and aspire to grow to greater heights. But remember, we all started at the first page of our journey in cybersecurity. We flipped to the next page and continue the story every day. Your journey will be curvy and exciting but comparing yourself to someone else’s status may be disparaging. Lead forth, and enjoy the cyber beginning and middle, as only you know how the story can be achieved!

Rita Gurevich, CEO and Founder of identity hygiene company SPHERE

I very clearly remember first starting out as an entrepreneur and I know first-hand how difficult it can be to make your way through a largely male-dominated industry. There are so many barriers.   

I reframed my perspective to view obstacles as opportunities. I am so grateful for the mentorship and support I received along the way; it’s been instrumental in shaping my leadership capabilities, passion for diversity, and dedication to making cybersecurity a more inclusive industry.

Despite the many barriers, I founded a bootstrap technology company dedicated to addressing a critical gap in the IAM industry. When I was ready to scale and grow our company and platform, I defied the odds and the market trends at the time to secure funding that supported our next phase of growth.

The challenges I faced as a female leader in the cybersecurity industry are not unique, so I feel I have a responsibility to educate others on what it’s like to be a female CEO building a successful company from scratch.

Organizations need to create environments that encourage diversity, professional development, equal access to success, and inclusivity at their core. We need to connect rising women in cybersecurity to other females who have been in their shoes before to provide support and professional relationships that may lead to new opportunities.    

If I had any advice for rising women in cybersecurity, it would be this: be bold, take risks, find support and mentorship along the way, and use the roadblocks and barriers as learning opportunities. If you manage to do this, there isn’t much that can stop you.

Joni Klippert, CEO, StackHawk

Initiatives promoting gender equality and networking opportunities in tech not only uplift women professionals but also enrich the industry at large, propelling innovation and inclusion forward. By challenging traditional views of leadership, especially in R&D roles, which tend to be biased towards hands-on-keys engineering experience, and favoring customer development, pattern matching and leadership acumen, opens the door for high-value talent to fulfill roles that may have been previously reserved based on engineering-backed experience.

Karen Larson, Vice President, Technology and Partnership Strategy, Axiad

If you could give women considering a career in cybersecurity one piece of advice, what would it be? What is your advice for women currently in the field?

I would tell both aspiring cybersecurity professionals and those in the field to keep an open mind. A lot of people have a misperception that the cybersecurity field is solely focused on hacking. But, there are a variety of options to consider – from offensive and defensive security, to setting processes and policies, to HR and marketing. If you want to get into cybersecurity, the possibilities are endless. Don’t limit yourself. Explore different paths and find the one that best suits you.

What role does diversity play in cybersecurity?

Cybersecurity is an issue that affects everyone, so it only makes sense that we need to consider different backgrounds, opinions, and schools of thought from diverse stakeholders to produce an effective solution.

If everyone thinks the same way, you might address one threat, but miss many others. To build a strong cybersecurity program, you need to think holistically, and this means bringing as many different backgrounds to the table as possible. Cybercriminals collaborate to execute attacks, and we must do the same to defend against them.

Cheryl McGrath, Area Vice President and Country General Manager, Optiv Canada

My advice to women is to go for it, and I encourage girls and women to take that first step toward an exciting and fulfilling career in cyber. We need to reinforce the idea that having all the required cyber skills at the outset is not an imperative — we have a need for people with STEAM skills, which is STEM and those with Arts or Another background.

Michelle McLean, VP of Marketing, Salt Security 

Study after study shows how a more diverse group is able to brainstorm a more diverse set of solutions. But people’s mindsets are understandably shaped by what they’ve seen – if they haven’t seen women or people of color at the table, they don’t recognize when they’re missing. Tech will have more resources, more creativity, and more innovation driving it when more – and more different – people are shaping the conversation. When these voices have been absent, they must be consciously sought out, because otherwise people will simply “do it how it’s always been done” and we’ll never have the benefit of these new insights.

Most people need to see something to be able to imagine it happening. If you’ve never seen a woman leader in tech, it’s hard to picture it. Mentorship is one key area, but even more valuable is active sponsorship. Mentoring can happen off to the side, behind the scenes. What women need is someone standing up in the room and actively putting their name on the list for new projects, to lead new research, to own an emerging discipline. This kind of sponsorship is how more women can own something and demonstrate their skills and, in turn, get considered for the NEXT project as well.

I’ve been lucky to have both women and men sponsor me in different areas. At one company, a woman pushed that I should lead a major initiative to build a customer engagement platform and advisory council. I had done some similar work before, but not at that same scope or with that level of executive visibility. At another company, a male colleague asked me to lead a technical session at a sales kick off that would have been run by a male peer – he thought that giving the team the chance to see me in action on that topic would inspire them to grant me credibility in two other areas my colleague wanted me to lead later in the year. He was planting the seeds for my future success by giving me the floor with that audience.

These kinds of opportunities are key to increasing visibility and credibility and getting “the next thing” assigned to you.

Lauren Nagel, VP Product at StackHawk

Exploring the ever-changing world of technology has its tough moments, yet how we handle these hurdles shapes our journey ahead. I’ve experienced situations where my input struggled to be noticed in discussions across an organization. Teaming up with understanding colleagues who valued different perspectives taught me about the strength of standing together and supporting each other. This experience highlighted how essential clear communication and united voices are for making progress. I now continue to use my voice to uplift others, knowing how much it matters for career growth. Taking on the role of an advocate, I aim to give underrepresented voices more volume and promote inclusivity. The lessons I learned from overcoming challenges are now tools I share with fellow professionals, hoping to encourage a stronger and more diverse tech community. In every challenge, there's a chance to learn and grow. By working together, we can build a better future for all.

Alicia Olson, Vice President of Communications, Optiv

Cybersecurity is a dynamic and fast-growing industry with a 3 million job shortage worldwide. You do not need to be technical to work in this industry. I’m a perfect example of this fact, as I graduated college with a journalism degree. Get your foot in the door, and the sky is the limit.

Heather Rim, Chief Marketing Officer, Optiv

It’s important to remember that you can’t be what you can’t see. The ability to envision a career path in cyber that fulfills your aspirations plays a vital role in your success. The market demand for more cybersecurity professionals — especially women — is on the rise, and it’s imperative that we encourage the female leaders of tomorrow to step forward and secure their full potential.

Teresa Rothaar, Governance, Risk And Compliance Analyst, Keeper Security

Women account for or influence the overwhelming majority of consumer purchasing decisions, with estimates ranging from 70% to 85%. If your tech company’s leadership team doesn’t reflect the demographics of your customer base, you’ll end up designing products and services that don’t meet their needs.

Similarly, an all-male or predominantly male leadership team can make it more difficult for tech companies to recruit female candidates, because even well-meaning but homogenous leadership teams can inadvertently design policies and promote company cultures that don’t frequently meet the needs of female employees.

Meanwhile, women are completing college at higher rates than men. If your company wants to attract the best and brightest, diversity and inclusion can’t just be buzzwords; they have to be baked into your organization’s culture.

The explosion in remote work post-COVID probably did more to promote women’s employment in the tech sector than even the most robust corporate DEI program. This is because women are more likely than men to be caregivers to minor children and elderly or sick adult family members. Remote work enables these women to balance their careers with their caregiving responsibilities. It also opened up opportunities that many women couldn't have seized before due to them not being able to pick up and move for a new job.