The status of Canadian women in cyber security called ‘sad’

BRAMPTON, Ont. — Let us travel in a time machine to the dark, sexist past of Canada. Way back, about nine months ago, to the year 2018.

Lisa Kearney had recently been appointed director of product security at a British Columbia firm, which meant she oversaw design and product rollout. In addition, she was hired to design the company’s cyber security framework.

A staff meeting was being arranged and a man sitting beside her said, “Don’t worry about attending this meeting, it’s technical.” On another occasion her boss said, “You can attend (a meeting), but in listen-only mode.”

Not long after, for these and other reasons, Kearney left the firm to set up a Vancouver-based non-profit called the Women Cybersecurity Society to support women and girls interested in cybersecurity through programs and services to help remove career roadblocks. It has chapters in four Canadian cities as well as New York, Dublin and Leeds, U.K.

An online survey the society is running found that over 80 per cent of women respondents said they had suffered bullying and harassment where they have worked, Kearney said. Most felt they had no place to in their organizations to complain. Of those who said they did complain, many said nothing happened.

Kearney was one of two women who talked about the highs and lows of having a career in cybersecurity at the International Cyber Security and Intelligence Conference, which wrapped up Thursday.

The other speaker, Rima Aristocrat, CEO of Ottawa’s Willis College, a private post-secondary institution that offers courses in cybersecurity, called the situation of women in the industry “sad”.

Fewer than 10 per cent of the technology and cybersecurity jobs in Canada are held by women, she said. One problem is the image of cybersecurity as unwelcoming to women.

“If we are going to solve the [cyber] labour problem we need to be recruiting from 100 per cent of the population, not 50 per cent — men,” she maintained. “In addition to making financial sense it is the right thing to do.”

Aristocrat talked about an ongoing study funded by the Canadian Department of National Defence and overseen by the college and Calian Technologies on why women aren’t entering the cyber industry.

While the final report hasn’t been released, she said she learned the tech industry believes it can recruit men and women in the same way, and the public still sees the IT department as “dark, mysterious and supports a nerd culture.”

Governments, industry, academia need to do more

Yet both believe more women should enter the profession and call on industry, governments and academia to do more to erase gender barriers.

Both say sexism needs to be publicly discussed, but also the achievements of women in the industry.

Kearney touts declaring Sept. 1st as International Women in Cyber Security Day. So far Vancouver, Ottawa and St. John’s, N.L., have agreed.

While Willis College offers scholarships for women and Aristocrat speaks often publicly on the industry, she admits men outnumber women five to one in the college’s classrooms.

The image of IT as a male-dominated industry doesn’t help. And, she warned corporate managers, “When women raise concerns, listen and act.”

CISOs need to educate managers about the importance of cyber security, she added.

Changing the image of cybersecurity has to start in elementary schools, Aristocrat said in an interview, with parents as well as students.

More to be done

Despite her recent experiences, Kearney feels very encouraged about the status of women in cyber security today because many in the industry are working to improve conditions. But, she adds, “there’s lots of opportunity for growth.”

But differences in pay between men and women who do the same work, few promotions and opportunities for training and career development are frustrating, she said.

Kearney was asked in an interview if telling women about the problem she’s suffered over the years will keep them away from the industry, “I’ve thought about that a lot,” she replied. “And sometimes I wonder. I do use certain caution when I’m telling new women about it.

“But I also feel it’s really important that I do that because it would be putting women at a disadvantage to be telling them about the industry through rose-coloured glasses and say ‘It will all be wonderful.’ I can’t do that because it would be irresponsible. But I also want to equip them. And that’s what my organization is about: Equipping them about moving through those challenges and to be successful.”

The conference was sponsored by the Ontario College of Management and Technology, a private career college.

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@]

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