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Soft skills are vital for women to succeed, says cybersecurity panel

Curiosity, patience, time management, and being willing to speak up are some of the characteristics women will find helpful in a cybersecurity career, say women in the field.

They gave that advice Tuesday during an online careers panel discussion at an International Women Cyber Day Symposium. Traditionally, International Women in Cyber Day is observed on September 1st of each year, but many groups hold separate events during the month.

Some think that IT skills are most important for a career in the sector. But the women on this panel said otherwise.

For example, Yesenia Yser, a principal product security engineer at Red Hat and co-founder of Latinas in Cyber, said time management is a skill that has been vital in her career.

“Cybersecurity is a very high-stress, fast-paced environment,” she said, “so being able to manage your time and keep up with the latest and greatest,” is important. Self-development, continuous learning, and keeping your curiosity are also useful, she said.

The ability to lead without authority, she added, meaning “being able to drive change when you have no authority or say, trying to persuade [others] the reasoning and the impact the new change is going to have” is a key skill. And, she added, that skill goes with building relationships: “You can’t make those changes if people don’t trust you,” she said.

Natalie Maggitt, chief executive officer of the website iThriveHer, which is aimed at exposing women to science, technology and math, said curiosity is the leading skill that has helped her. A background in human resources has also been a big aid in working with others, she said.

While her current positions aren’t technical, she added, she is studying for the CompTIA Security+ certificate to broaden her career options.

Susanne Tedrick, a technical trainer at Microsoft, author of Women of Color in Tech, and co-author of the upcoming book Innovating for Diversity, said getting the career you want requires planning, skill building, and getting the help of mentors and sponsors.

Raeann Rideout, director of strategic partnerships at Elder Abuse Prevention Ontario, where, among other things, she counsels seniors on how to avoid being victimized by online fraud, said being outgoing has been central for communicating knowledge. Like the others, she also said a willingness to keep up with change is important. “If you’re not willing to learn what’s out there, you can’t pass that information to others.”

Rideout also said patience should be in everyone’s personal toolkit. It not only takes time to learn, it also takes time for people you deal with to learn as well.

Determination is also necessary, suggested Ndey Touray of Touray Tech Solutions, an IT firm in Gambia. She was told IT is a male bastion. “I proved them wrong.”

Several on the panel said it’s not necessarily a prerequisite to have an IT or security certification to have a career in cybersecurity. Learning on the job is a way many — including men — have built careers, they said.

“As long as you have a foundation” in IT or cybersecurity, that can go a long way, said Yser. “I tell a lot of folks I mentor, ‘Get a Github account, come up with a project and work on it. When you go to a job interview you can talk about a project you’ve been coding’. You show your skill in a different fashion.” Certifications may be important for some positions, but what can be more important is “to present that you’re actually going to make a difference and impact as an asset to that company.”

In a separate session, Julia Le, senior manager of the Ontario government’s Cybersecurity Centre of Excellence, said public-private-academic partnerships will be a key way to increase the participation of women and minorities in cybersecurity. She gave as an example the accelerated cybersecurity training program for women offered by Toronto Metropolitan University’s Rogers Cybersecure Catalyst. It’s supported by Rogers Communications, the Royal Bank and the federal government.

Also at the event, Sylvia Gellman, now 101, who worked as a typist during the Second World War at Canada’s first code-breaking agency, was given an International Women in Cyber Day Founders Award for her work. The federal government publicly recognized the secret work of what was called the Examination Unit in August.

Several speakers noted that, according to a 2021 survey, women make up less than 25 per cent of the global cybersecurity workforce at a time when there is a shortage of cybersecurity staff.

The event was organized by the Canadian-based Women CyberSecurty Society.

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