Although there is improvement in the number of women taking up roles in South Africa’s ICT industry, the cyber security sector shows the lowest level of gender transformation.
This was the word from Mamela Luthuli, CEO and founder of cyber security firm Take Note IT, speaking to ITWeb TV about the low representation of women in SA’s cyber security field and the importance of narrowing this gap.
Women can play a key role in bridging the gap between the country’s high unemployment level and the huge shortage of cyber security professionals, Luthuli adds.
“As far as I'm concerned, there has been no improvement in the number of women that we see entering SA’s cyber security space, and the statistics are appalling.
“The key contributor is that the barriers to entry are very high; for instance, in my experience the certification that was required in order for me to establish Take Note IT requires me to have been in the industry for a long time.
“Secondly, the education system should play a critical role in sparking cyber security interest in girls at a young age,” she comments.
Luthuli believes stereotypes that reinforce the perception that male cyber security workers are better, and the broader problem of the lower number of females being introduced to the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, are additional factors limiting progress in the field.
The gender imbalance in the sector potentially leaves SA at high risk of cyber attacks, she warns.
“Our leaders and the private sector need to be intentional about accelerating diversity, specifically in the cyber security sector; it must be non-negotiable. Technology is key in every sector and with that comes the importance of cyber security skills.”
To help fill the gender gap, while creating a pipeline of young cyber professionals, Take Note IT collaborated with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research to establish a Cyber Excellence Academy, to empower youth, particularly young women, with free advanced cyber security skills.
According to a 2022 cyber security workforce study, the global industry had a shortage of 3.4 million skilled professionals. Women represented 24% of the global cyber security workforce.
Itumeleng Makgati, Standard Bank executive of group information security, plays an important role in directing the group's cyber security services in accordance with its digital and platform business vision and business strategy.
She tells ITWeb that while there has been a shift in the number of women entering the cyber security industry, the glass ceiling, underrepresentation in leadership roles, gender bias and gender pay gap are still hinderances.
“Women continue to be underrepresented in leadership positions within the cyber security sector. This lack of representation perpetuates a cycle where women might not see clear paths for advancement, leading to limited opportunities for career growth and influence.
“They often face biases and stereotypes that affect their professional experiences,” notes Makgati, who has been in the ICT industry for 20 years.
Role exclusions are another concern – where women and men tend to gravitate toward different roles within cyber security − and there is a lack of transparency in the gender pay gap, she notes.
“In cyber security, women are concentrated in non-technical or less technical roles, which might be perceived as lower-paying, for example.
“In terms of negotiation and advocacy – research has shown that women often negotiate their salaries less aggressively than men, which can lead to lower starting salaries and slower salary growth over time,” she explains.
Anna Collard, SVP of content strategy and evangelist at cyber firm KnowBe4 Africa, has been working in cyber security since 2001. She founded Popcorn Training, which was acquired by KnowBe4 in 2018.
According to Collard, over the last two decades, SA has seen an improvement in the number of females entering the sector, due to various efforts undertaken in the last few years to provide platforms showcasing female leaders, such as the Women in Cyber or Women in Tech awards.
However, there is plenty of room for improvement, she asserts.
“I’m definitely seeing an improvement from how it was 10 or 20 years ago, but it’s still not enough. I think the improvement is thanks to the increased awareness about diversity being a good thing and HR policies actually consciously trying to achieve these goals.
“We still need more awareness and updated HR policies that drive equal pay based on role or experience, rather than gender or what someone is asking for.
Collard is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on the Future of the Metaverse for the 2023-2024 term, and recently scooped a top awardin the cyber security Woman of the Year awards in Las Vegas.
Based on anecdotal evidence and personal experiences, she says women in cyber security are still subjected to gender inequality.
“I've been told by some of my female peers, and I myself had a couple of sexist incidents over the 20-year span, but nothing too serious. And most of my experiences with my male peers or mentors have been positive and highly-supportive.
“For a study we conducted about two years ago, we interviewed 450 teachers across Africa about what could be done to attract more girls into tech, and the majority of responses showed more role models would make the biggest impact,” concludes Collard.