Maria, a Digital Security Associate, shares her journey to a cyber career. She discusses finding direction, doing what she loves and her experiences of diversity while studying and working in cyber security.
The lack of diversity in cyber security
Stereotypically, the cyber security industry is dominated by straight, middle-aged, Caucasian males. In the UK, women make up a mere 8% of the cyber security industry. This imbalance in diversity is a massive cause for concern and is a recurring theme in many STEM subjects. It’s important to note that the lack of women and other genders in the cyber security industry is not the only issue. There is also a lack of people of colour, different sexualities and economic backgrounds. It’s impossible to say why this is as many factors can influence an individual’s career trajectory. But I believe it’s due to the lack of opportunities offered to minorities. Many schools in low-income communities don’t even provide computing as a subject, never mind cyber security! Therefore, students are given little to none exposure to cyber security careers. Even when they are exposed to it, it’s often seen as a ‘boys club’, which deters people away from it.
So, what can we do to fix the issue, and why is it an issue that needs to be fixed? I believe the key to combating the imbalance of diversity within the industry is education! We need to highlight the amazing opportunities available in the cyber security industry and encourage workplaces and educational institutions to offer more opportunities to minorities.
What can be done?
The lack of opportunities currently available deprives various individuals and companies of reaching their full potential. Hiring individuals from diverse backgrounds can introduce a more comprehensive range of skills to the industry. Additionally, by being more inclusive, workplaces can make employees feel more valued and accepted, which can boost work ethic. Diversity of thought will be vital in combating various cyber security threats.
Therefore, if you’re a minority, I encourage you to take advantage of the diversity schemes companies, and universities offer; they’re made to combat this and tailored to give you more opportunities that otherwise you wouldn’t have access to.
I’m a woman of colour from a low-income background raised by a single mother. Growing up, I thought my future would be so bleak; I didn’t finish high school, and I had no set plan for my future like my peers did. I felt incredibly lost. While my friends were moving on with their lives, I spent most of my free time on my computer playing hacking games. They brought me joy in an incredibly dark period of my life.
Encouraged by my friends, I went to college to move on with my life. They were doing pharmacy, and I decided to follow in their footsteps. My mum was incredibly proud of this, but I still didn’t feel joy or enthusiasm for the course.
A year later, I saw an advertisement for a cyber security course at a local university. This piqued my interest; I had no idea turning my hobby into a career.
But at that point, I only had a year left in my pharmacy course at college till I could apply to go to uni. If I had changed careers paths, I would’ve wasted a year of my life and been another year further back from catching up with my friends. So, I continued with the course. After completing it, I was still incredibly unhappy with my choice and hated the idea of having to spend the rest of my life doing the same thing.
Making the decision to change routes
I still wanted to pursue cyber security, although, at that point, it felt like a pipe dream. I’d have to return to college and retrain to get the right qualifications to apply for the course I wanted. Which would mean I would have to spend another two years at college then go to uni. Plus, I always thought computing was a male-dominated industry; even at school, primarily boys chose to do computing. As much as I loved cyber security, I didn’t think I’d fit in. I spoke to my family and friends about this, most of them agreed that I should be doing what I love, no matter how long it takes. However, a few of them did have their doubts and were disappointed in my decision.
Nonetheless, I went with my gut and decided to go to college to retrain. I was expecting my course to be filled with all boys and zero girls. To my surprise, five of the students were girls - two of which who were people of colour (including me). Much more than I thought there would be! Now I look back; it’s rather sad to think that was a lot. Over the next couple of years, I made some great friends and learnt some fantastic new skills.
When my course finished, many of the friends I made left to pursue different sectors in computing and I continued on to study cyber at my chosen university. I was anxious about going to university as I was older than the average university student; however, after I started, I found everyone was a little nervous. We were all in the same boat despite our differences.
Diversity on cyber courses
Despite the student body being triple the size of my college course, there were only three girls in my year. At first, I accepted this as the norm and dismissed it. However, over the years, it was hard to ignore the gap. I looked for schemes that encouraged more females into cyber security and STEM in general, and I started to volunteer at organisations like smart stems to inspire more people to cyber sec as a career.
Further spreading my passion for cyber security, I re-started the ethical hacking society in my university, starting mentor and outreach programs to inspire more people from different backgrounds and working with lecturers and society committees to hold events, competitions, and conventions. It was great to have a community of like-minded individuals who recognised the lack of diversity and were actively improving that ratio within the cyber security industry. It was great to see female students on the cyber security and network courses increase each year.
Opportunities after my undergraduate degree
Through my volunteering, I found out about the FS-ISAC postgraduate scholarship. The global scholarship targeted the top females in cyber security that were looking into postgraduate education and offered $10,000 toward the tuition of their chosen course. I was incredibly passionate about doing a master’s in cyber security as I would be able to continue my research, but I would never be able to afford it. I was already working full time alongside my university course, which was barely enough to cover my living expenses, and I had already taken out a student loan. The only way I could do a post-graduated degree was if I had the scholarship to help cover the costs.
Fortunately, I excelled in my course; I successfully secured a spot on the highly selective FS-ISAC scholarship. I was one of the six students selected and I was the only woman of colour. I was also the youngest and only person in Scotland to be selected. This opportunity further boosted my career and has given me even more opportunities allowing me to do things I never even dreamed of. For example, last year, I got to join the Clinton Global Initiative and work with Chelsea Clinton and former US president Bill Clinton!
I wish someone had told me earlier there was no set pathway, and you didn’t need to have it all figured out. You can change careers and not need to be stuck in the same thing forever. I’m glad I discovered and took the various opportunities offered to me. I’m now enjoying my career as a cyber security professional, and I’m incredibly grateful to give back to the industry.
If you're considering a career in cyber visit our DigiKnow Careers page for more information and resources for careers in Cyber Security or in the Digital sector.