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Women who work in cybersecurity continue to face numerous workplace experiences that contribute to an overall feeling of exclusion and, consequently, impact their satisfaction, productivity and retention, a new report finds.

The State of Inclusion of Women in Cybersecurity report conducted by the organization Women in CyberSecurity addressed the barriers that prevent women from being hired and retained in the cybersecurity workforce. Overall, the WiCyS study found that women are especially impacted by a lack of respect and career opportunities.

WiCyS is a global community of women, allies and advocates that seeks to build a strong gender-diverse cybersecurity workforce by facilitating recruitment, retention and advancement. The report is based on a series of workshops WiCyS conducted in February 2023 that the organization said were attended by more than 300 women.

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Exclusion stats and ‘inexcusable behaviors’

The research found that exclusion appears to be rampant: 83% of participants shared at least one experience of exclusion.

Workshop participants were asked to score categories and sources of experiences they had. Participants who indicated they are unsatisfied or very unsatisfied reported nearly twice as many experiences of exclusion (5.6) as those who are satisfied or very satisfied (2.7), according to the report.

Other findings related to exclusion include:

  • The top two categories where participants reported feeling excluded were career and growth (57%) and respect (56%). Both recognition and access categories were cited by 41% of participants.
  • Cybersecurity firms have a significantly higher level of exclusion than non-cybersecurity firms. The WiCyS study said this finding aligns with similar studies showing that technology companies tend to have higher overall exclusion scores than companies in other sectors, especially for women.
  • Larger organizations (5,000 or more employees) seem to be more inclusive than smaller companies.
  • Workplace policies were cited as a source of exclusion by 12% of the participants.

The report highlighted some surprising findings, notably, that compared to other studies, career and growth received the second-highest exclusion score from participants. For example, (ISC)²  found that the percentage of women working in cybersecurity is 24%.

“This result suggests that women in cybersecurity frequently experience situations that impact their ability to grow and to advance in their careers — problems that are strongly linked to satisfaction and … retention rates,” the report said.

Another surprising finding was the fact that compensation and benefits ranked low in priority, which the WiCyS report said suggests that “this category is less of an issue than has been found in other industries.”

SEE: Woman in tech also face issues with harrassment and inequality in the workplace.

The report said “inexcusable behaviors” were described during the workshops. One participant said, “Colleagues would play pornographic movies as I arrived to meetings. One time, a colleague played a movie like this when we were meeting with a customer.”

Another participant shared: “A manager that I had for a student position would take me out for lunch consistently. He eventually took me out for dinner, then due to a ‘payroll’ issue that he said was mandatory to complete that evening he told me that we should go to his place and fix the problem. At his house, he tried to kiss me (which I quickly declined), and he was mad and told me that going to HR about ‘little things’ could impact people’s careers and I shouldn’t do that.”

Leadership cited as top sources of feelings of exclusion

Drawing from “specific uncomfortable workplace experiences” participants described during the workshops, the report drew the conclusion that “people, not policies, are the most common sources of experiences of exclusion.”

Sixty-eight percent of the study participants cited leadership as being a source for feeling excluded, while 61% cited managers and 52% cited peers, particularly in terms of respect.

How organizations can make women feel more included

Firms have the best opportunity to create feelings of greater inclusion by addressing the areas of respect, careers and growth paths, the WiCyS report said.

The report recommends that organizations “pay special attention to women in managerial roles, as well as women who have been with them for more than five years.” In addition, there needs to be more mindfulness on the part of individuals and behavior changes.

“The analysis also confirms that exclusion results from the behaviors of coworkers, not from workplace policies or abstract notions of ‘company culture,'” the report said.

Further, self-reported satisfaction is highly correlated with inclusion, stressed Lynn Dohm, WiCyS executive director.

“This supports the idea that addressing some of the problem areas that lead to exclusion could have a significant impact on satisfaction, which, in turn, is known to be a significant driver of retention,” said Dohm.

She advised organizations to think beyond the recruitment phase and focus much more on retention.

How the exclusion score was calculated

From the report: “Using the collected data we calculate the exclusion score, a numerical value that combines prevalence (the proportion of participants who shared at least one experience), severity (the average number of experiences shared per person) and frequency (one-time or recurring). The exclusion score can be calculated at any level of analysis, from the entire dataset down to specific Categories, Sources, Traits, or combinations of these dimensions. At any of these levels, higher exclusion scores pinpoint more problematic areas, and therefore the greatest opportunities to create more inclusive workplaces by reducing or eliminating experiences that lead to exclusion.”

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