How to make careers in cybersecurity more accessible for women

As Area VP and Canadian General Manager for Optiv, the world’s largest cybersecurity integrator, Cheryl McGrath is pleased to see an uptick in the number of women working in cybersecurity. A firm believer in equal opportunities, she applauds recent initiatives to address the gender gap in this field, while at the same time observing that there is still plenty of room for improvement.

Taking the Stairs

Speaking with ITWC journalist Pragya Sehgal in July 2021 at ITWC’s second annual Top Women in Cybersecurity celebration, McGrath offered a metaphor to explain her take on enhancing gender diversity in the cybersecurity sector. “I think we all agree that there’s no elevator to success,” she told Sehgal. “You have to take the stairs.”

A 2019 inductee into the Canadian Women in the IT Channel Hall of Fame, McGrath pointed to early experiences with technology as a way to get women on those stairs in the first place. “We need to encourage girls and young women to take an interest in cybersecurity,” she said. “We need to help them along and show them that if we can do it, they can as well.”

Removing Barriers

On the subject of removing barriers to careers in the cybersecurity field, McGrath spoke to the importance of role models, saying they are most effective when they look like you, are of the same gender, and have a role that you aspire to. She encouraged both men and women to spend time with young people in security-related activities, like coding classes and hackathons.

Responding to a question from Sehgal about the role individuals play in breaking down barriers to careers for women in cybersecurity, McGrath stressed the need to create more inclusive cultures around us and within our companies. “And in order to do that, we need to elevate those we work with and help them along – in other words, to help them climb up those stairs that I talked about.”

A Corporate Focus

She was pleased to report that 25 per cent of Optiv’s team members are now women and in Canada, up to 40 per cent of leadership team members are women – numbers that reflect what she described as a corporate focus. Optiv initiatives, such as the Optiv Women’s Network, Black Employee Network, Optiv Pride, and Optiv Veterans Engagement Team, align with core company values and highlight the positive impact of a diverse, equitable, and inclusive culture. “Many other companies have similar initiatives,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of emphasis on programs that improve the hiring and retention of women.”

McGrath shared some interesting statistics showing that men will apply for a new job if they have 60 per cent of the skills requested, while women wait to apply until they meet 90 per cent of the criteria. “In terms of helping women to climb those stairs, we need to reinforce that it isn’t necessary to have all the required skills,” she stated. “Some can be learned once they have the job.”

Reaching the Goal 

Asked what success would look like when it comes to the number of women in cybersecurity roles, McGrath described an accurate reflection of the percentage of men and women in the general population. “The last I looked, the population was 51 per cent women and 49 per cent men,” she said. “That’s what success would look like.”

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Suzanne Robicheau
Suzanne Robicheau
Suzanne Robicheau is a communications specialist based in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, where working remotely continues to fuel her passion for new mobile technologies -- especially on snowy days.

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