Laura PayneWhy are most cybersecurity professionals men? Laura Payne has an idea or two to share, and she’ll be presenting them at SecTor this October.

Payne, a senior information security advisor at BMO, will be addressing this topic in a keynote session at the conference. Gathered together with a panel of female cybersecurity experts, she’ll explore the challenges of being a woman in the cybersecurity community today.

What are those challenges? One of the biggest is under-representation. Payne cites a report released by security organization (ISC)2, drawing on research into the role that women play in the Infosecurity sector. It found that 10% of cybersecurity workers are women. This is little changed from 2013 research, which found that women represent 11% of information security professionals globally. This deviates significantly from the broader labour distribution. Women represent 46.9% of the US labour force, (ISC)2 said in 2013.

That’s a pretty big statistical difference, and given the skills shortage in the cybersecurity sector, it means that companies are missing out on a potentially valuable resource. The problem is that gender diversity is a problem so big it’s difficult to grasp the edges and do something about it. That’s an issue Payne wants to address in her panel.

“What a lot of people struggle with is what they can do to make some sort of difference. It’s a big problem to try and tackle,” she said. “One of the biggest objectives of the panel is to try and bring it down to a human level, and to identify some things that have been helpful to us as women who have been successful.”

Early problems

One of the first steps to solving the problem is to understand why it’s happening. The disparity starts early, Payne warned.

“Girls at a very young age are more on a par with boys in terms of math and science,” she explained. “As you get a little older into pre-teens and teens, the pressure to fit in socially tends to take over, and that’s a cultural factor.” Excelling in math and science can be seen as geeky in younger female peer groups.

The STEM drop-off in middle school leads to later problems, because it limits higher education options later on, she said. So women end up veering away from technology education into other areas.

What can people do individually to help redress the imbalance? Mentorship is a powerful thing, she said, adding that it was invaluable as she evolved along her own career path.

“Along the way, people who they looked up to and respected, such as parents, teachers, siblings, peers, or coworkers, saw a talent and an interest and encouraged them to continue,” she said. Showing younger women that it’s ok to pursue these interests helps to counter anti-technology pressures from peer groups.

Mentors don’t have to be women. In fact, most of Payne’s were men, as she began her career in the capital markets group at BMO working on ITIL IT service processes and then moved into change management and IT audits. It was a male mentor who helped Payne to evolve into a cybersecurity role.

“One of the people I worked for suggested that when there was a position open as information security officer I should apply for it,” she said. “Even though I didn’t have the technical certifications, he thought it would be a good fit, and would be supportive of helping me grow into that role.”

There’s an opportunity for SecTor attendees and anyone else in the cybersecurity world to make a difference, she concluded.

“If there are women and girls that you think could really do well in the information security field, just don’t be shy about encouraging them,” she said. One conversation can open up new opportunities, and change a career.

Laura Payne will be heading a keynote session with several other women in the cybersecurity field at the SecTor conference this October 18-19 at the Metro Convention Centre in downtown Toronto. There is also a day of training at the conference on October 17. To see her speak, register here.