Women are stepping up to the front lines of cybersecurity in increasing numbers

Women are stepping up to the front lines of cybersecurity in increasing numbers
L-R: Lisa Kearney, Nancy Johnsen, Veronique Turgeon

Lisa Kearney first learned about cybersecurity in 1995. She was a new mom at the time, working three cleaning jobs to make ends meet on Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula.

One of those jobs involved janitorial work in a school board office. Kearney cleaned in the evenings while night courses were held in another room. From time to time, the course instructor complimented Kearney on her attention to detail, saying the office had never looked better. She didn’t give his comments much thought. Until, that is, the day he told her he thought she’d be a “really good fit” for the new program he was teaching.

That program was network security, as cybersecurity was then known—a field defined, in simple terms, as the protection of computer systems and networks from malicious attacks. The instructor told Kearney how to get started and the young mother didn’t waste any time. Within two days, Kearney passed an aptitude test and decided to pack up her life, move to St. John’s and begin her new career.

Twenty-five years later, Kearney has held cybersecurity positions across all levels of industry and government. She’s had stints with Canada’s Space Agency and drops oblique hints at her work on highly classified international projects. It’s been a rewarding career for Kearney, both personally and financially. (A recent survey of job postings on Indeed.ca revealed that in Canada, the average annual salary for new cybersecurity positions is $82,000.)

But throughout much of her working life, Kearney was often the only woman in the room. In fact, cybersecurity is a famously male-dominated industry. Globally, women comprise just 11 per cent of the cybersecurity workforce, according to the 2017 Global Information Security Workforce Study: Women in Cybersecurity. Though North America was found to have the highest rate of women in cybersecurity roles anywhere in the world, that rate still rests at a dismal 14 per cent.

In 2018, Kearney—now based in Vancouver—felt that women in the industry needed more support. After a LinkedIn group she created took off, Kearney founded the Women CyberSecurity Society.

Her nonprofit helps recruit more women and other marginalized groups (including nonbinary and transgender individuals) into the field, while providing ongoing training and mentorship. Local chapters of the Women CyberSecurity Society have formed in 10 Canadian cities to date, coast to coast from St. John’s to Vancouver, along with three international outposts in New York City, Dublin and Leeds. The nonprofit has also spearheaded a global campaign to recognize September 1st as International Women in Cyber Day. So far, city councils in Vancouver, Ottawa and St. John’s have all agreed and issued official declarations of recognition.

Nancy Johnsen leads the local chapter of the Women CyberSecurity Society in St. John’s. Johnsen transitioned to cybersecurity after working 21 years in IT and is currently employed as the manager of security for health care in the province. In this role, Johnsen and her team see a lot of phishing on a day-to-day basis.

“Health care has actually become a primary target, specifically with COVID,” Johnsen says. “It’s very lucrative when it comes to attackers trying to get information because they know companies will pay for that information, given that we’re at such a critical time here.”

With this relentless, daily wave of cyber-attacks, the need for cybersecurity professionals has never been more critical. While there’s still a general shortage of workers, Johnsen is encouraged by how much the St. John’s cybersecurity community has grown over the past few years. For one thing, she’s noticed a surge of interest among young women currently enrolled in computer science programs. Before the pandemic, she hosted a number of in-person meetings through the local chapter of the Women CyberSecurity Society. And though COVID-19 brought those meet-and-greets to a necessary standstill, the nonprofit’s shift towards online meetings has helped women and minorities outside St. John’s make connections, too.

Take Veronique Turgeon, for example. Originally from Québec, Turgeon has spent the last four years working an IT position in Gander, Newfoundland (about 330 km away from St. John’s.) She’s not working in cybersecurity yet, but she’s hoping to make a switch. “I want to fight and help small businesses or anyone who has issues with cybersecurity be more proactive and more secure,” Turgeon says.

Since joining the Women Cyber- Security Society in March, she’s attended many online skill-building workshops with women from all over the world. A girl in Grade 7 joined the meeting a few weeks ago, which Turgeon found “kind of amazing.”

Kearney has seen a lot of changes in cybersecurity since she entered the field. In the past, most people got their start after graduating from university or college programs. Nowadays, she says, that isn’t the case. According to Kearney, there’s a great deal of training material available online, made accessible for free or at a fairly low cost, and anyone interested can begin their career between six months to a year after starting.

Since founding the Women Cyber- Security Society two years ago, Kearney senses a lot of positive momentum. These days, employers routinely contact her for advice on how to attract and retain female talent. Her online workshops are garnering huge interest; the last couple, she says, sold out with waitlists of almost 100 people.

Helping women achieve their goals is extremely rewarding for Kearney. And as industry reports warn of looming “cybersecurity talent shortages” in Canada, Kearney sees a pivotal role for women and minorities to play in meeting these challenges.

“I talk to women who are hairdressers. I talk to women who are caterers. I talk to women who are homemakers. People in the financial industry. People in the arts. You know, graphic design. And I just encourage them all to come into cybersecurity and don’t let the technical aspect scare you away,” Kearney says.

“We need that diversity of thought. We need changes in thought and problem solving to address the challenging issues in cybersecurity, and women bring that to the table.” •

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