Anyone can work in cybersecurity, veteran says

Cybersecurity is an incredibly rich place that can be observed from any angle and approached with any skillset, industry veteran Jennifer Addie told Cybernews.

“When it comes to cybersecurity, a lot of women will self-select. They'll say oh, I don't have this full skill set yet, so I'm probably not qualified enough to begin with. But that’s usually how it goes with any entry-level job. You’re not gonna have everything yet. You want to step into the role if you have an interest, if you’re curious, or if you have some of the required skill sets. That’s enough to build on.”

The technology field, particularly cybersecurity, is heavily male-dominated, with women only comprising approximately 25% of the workforce.

Now is a more critical time than ever to get women interested in cybersecurity and to bridge the skill shortage gap while diversifying cyberspace.

To better understand the cyber landscape from a female industry pro’s position, I spoke to Jennifer Addie, Chief Operating Officer and Chief Wellness Officer at VentureScope and MACH37, to discuss her experience in the field.

Jennifer’s story

Having worked in the industry for over 24 years, Jennifer has watched as the tech industry has evolved into an unfathomable and unpredictable beast.

Initially, Jennifer’s background was in cognitive neuroscience, where she studied neural networks and programming as a part of her studies.

“I spent time as a programmer and a product developer early in my career. From there, I moved into the innovation space,” Jennifer explained.

From the start, Jennifer was enamored with technology.

“I was always a curious kid, and my aunt was into computers in the early eighties, so I got my hands on a keyboard really young and just started having fun.”

“I remember even in elementary school, the other teachers would come down to the classroom where we had one computer to say, “Hey Jennifer, can you tell the computer to do this?” It seemed like a natural language; you just learned the commands, and it was fine, but it was clear even then there was sort of this new language coming out that the computer spoke, which was fascinating.”

Her keen curiosity surrounding tech was sparked in her early years and flourished during university.

“I was always interested in tech, I appreciated computing as a tool. When I got to university I was studying the human brain and looked into whether we could create computers that mimic that sort of biophilia or biomimicry.”

Jennifer had the opportunity to hone her skills and break into the industry. However, this isn’t always the case. We discussed some of the factors that make it difficult for women to break into the industry.

Narrow definitions

I asked Jennifer if there are any preconceived notions of what a cybersecurity professional or STEM professional looks like. Jennifer expressed that there are definitely some biases and “narrow definitions” affiliated with cyber.

“There are definitely some biases and maybe some narrow definitions of what is cyber, what is computing, and what type of person goes into these fields. However, when you break into the field you realize it's an incredibly rich place with all these different nuances that require alternative perspectives from different types of people.”

“Anyone from any direction and any sort of industry can work in cyber. I considered myself more of a neuroscientist but ended up doing a lot of work in cyber, and it all intersects.”

However, there’s still a lack of women in the cyber workforce at present, despite the idea that cyber is a space that needs different people with alternative perspectives.

As we spoke, we discussed the reasons that are stopping women from becoming more involved in the industry.

“I think there are a couple reasons why women aren’t more involved. In my experience, a lot of women will self-select out, they'll say, ‘Oh, I don't have this full skill set yet, so I'm probably not qualified yet.’ So I think there are folks who are self-selecting out for different reasons, some of which may go back to the biases or impressions of what someone in cyber should look like, and they say, that’s probably not me.”

Jennifer also explained that a lot of recruitment focuses on narrow skill sets used to attract specific types of people.

“I think also, for a long time, recruiting really focused on some narrow skill sets. If organizations really want a specific type of engineer and an applicant doesn't have this type of background, the organization wouldn't consider a lot of professionals. The way that organizations and corporations are looking at who should do cyber is a little too narrow, to be honest. Yes, an individual is going to need some technical awareness, but I know I picked up a lot of skills along the way.”

Not to mention the pay disparity between men and women in the industry. It’s discouraging for individuals who are trying to upskill to see that they aren’t being paid as much as their male counterparts.

“You see this with a lot of female cyber professionals, that they’re performing the same way as their male counterparts, and maybe they don't get the same job opportunities. So there's a cultural issue there that a lot of organizations and corporations need to acknowledge and solve.”

Who will be supported?

One of the primary reasons for the lack of women in the industry – which, as Jennifer has observed, is improving with each generation – is the culture surrounding women in tech.

“I saw a bunch of women step out right between high school going into university and then also at the graduate level, they just decided not to pursue a graduate degree, and a lot of that was around the culture. The question was, who was going to be supported in their dissertations, who was going to be included in the classroom, and would there be fellow women in the classroom? We’ve all been there, where you’re the lone female.”

However, there are a range of new initiatives in tech that encourage women and non-binary individuals to break into the industry.

“There is a range of different initiatives. One of my close friends plays a big role in ‘The Society of Women Engineers.’ There are a bunch of great programs locally that we are involved with, like Girls Who Code and AnitaB, who are deliberately seeking opportunities for women and and non-binary individuals.”

What’s most important for underrepresented individuals to break into the industry is to engage with people who are already in the industry, Jennifer explained.

“Meet people who are already in the industry and living it. Approach them at a human level and talk to them about their experience. Start exploring the art of the possible.”

But what else can be done to help encourage more women to enter the cyber workforce?

At all levels

If we want to see more women entering the industry, Jennifer explained that technical acumen and cyber understanding need to come at all levels.

“I think the easiest time to learn this is when you're young. A lot of the schools are doing STEAM and STEM. I’m a mom of two daughters, and I know I’ve been following their STEAM classes very closely. My older daughter is signing up for her first engineering class next year, and that’s really exciting.”

Jennifer is encouraging her daughters to explore STEAM and STEM education to expose them to new technology while encouraging that interaction.

“Part of getting more people involved in STEM and tech is exposure, and that easily takes place in the classroom if organizations can start integrating technology into the schools as a learning tool.”

Jennifer also raised the idea of upskilling and developing digital acumen later on in life to help individuals become comfortable with technology.

“I think corporations need to make it a lot more accessible for people who are learning later on in life. It's really hard to know where to start if you're trying to teach yourself, so having the opportunity to increase your digital acumen in ways that are relevant to your life would be really valuable.”

To conclude our conversation, Jennifer outlined the things that we can do to help encourage more women to enter cybersecurity and STEM professions:

  • Provide access to forums and spaces that help connect people to communities.
  • Make tech accessible to all, whether that’s through school or work.
  • Foster a tech-friendly mindset and demolish feelings of intimidation surrounding cyber.
  • Display the human side to tech to help people establish a connection with the field.
  • Demonstrate the rich and diverse aspects of cyber.

“I’ve been in cyber for 24 years, I’ve held all sorts of different roles, and I was never pigeonholed. You can have six different careers in one, which I think is really exciting. So getting people to understand that the opportunity is there, I think, could change how people see and approach cyber.”

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