June 4, 2021 | 11 minute read
There are around 2 million women veterans in the US today, making up only 10% of the total Veterans population. Disparities concerning gender, race, and sexual orientation in the increasingly digital military are mirrored in cybersecurity. Women veterans have, in recent years, been acclaimed as an untapped resource to help fill the now 464,420 open cybersecurity jobs (CyberSeek). In general, current and previous leaders of this nation have put emphasis on providing sustainable employment for transitioning military veterans, but are women in that notion provided equal opportunities, resources, and pay?
In 2011, the Obama Administration signed into legislation the Veterans Opportunity to Work (VOW) to Hire Heroes Act, in the pursuit of ensuring that our nation’s service men and women will have jobs to come home to when released from duty. Another, the Support for Veterans in Effective Apprenticeships Act of 2019, a bill that enabled additional program requirements for increasing the access of veterans and their survivors or dependents to such programs, was signed into legislation in 2020, by the Trump Administration. Systematic approaches like these are singular at best, because they do not call to attention any details regarding disparities between the majority white cisgender male population in the military and minorities. The America Competes 2020 research report, “New York State Minority Veteran Needs Assessment”, led by the Center for a New American Security, summed it up nicely, saying, “While there has been significant attention paid to key issues for veterans, veterans have largely been treated as a monolith, with little disaggregated research and writing on veteran minority populations.”
“While there has been significant attention paid to key issues for veterans, veterans have largely been treated as a monolith, with little disaggregated research and writing on veteran minority populations.”
Women veterans have spent years acquiring a wealth of soft skills, training, and abilities that civilians do not have, such as the ability to think like the enemy and perform tasks under extreme pressure, both of which are highly applicable during an active cyberattack. According to the latest U.S. Labor Department, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020 Current Population Survey, the women veteran population is young and more diverse than the male veteran population, and women veterans are more likely to have a college degree than that of male veterans and non-veterans. There is no doubt surrounding the influence and distinct perspectives women veterans will continue to have on the field of cybersecurity. This is where women and minority specific initiatives and partnerships, tailored to meet specific pain points, come into play. Pain points can range from difficulties filling cybersecurity jobs, gender pay disparities, and transitioning to civilian life, to seeking and finding meaningful employment. Below, we’ll take a closer look at the details of each pain point, and also cover impactful initiatives that seek to address these and highlight the accomplishments, motivation, and determination of women and minority veterans in cybersecurity.
Untapped Potential and Imposter Syndrome
For as long as the American economy has been around women have been underrepresented, particularly in areas where the societal perception of the profession is, “a man’s job”. While in the military, women train in the exact same fields as their male counterparts, including career fields like business, intelligence, healthcare, engineering and applied science, computers and computer science, manufacturing, and many more. With the race to fill cybersecurity jobs, and new initiatives in place to focus on the talent pipeline in public and private sectors, training for a career in cybersecurity is an option full of potential for women veterans. This pipeline not only secures jobs and livelihoods for women veterans, many of whom run their households, but also funnels more women into a field where diversity is stark.
Previously attained knowledge, skills, and competencies by women veterans include: Leadership, Problem Solving, Teamwork, Adaptability, Agility, Decision-Making, and many more technical skills. Despite these all being highly transferable skills in cybersecurity, there is a disconnect hindering the untapped potential of women veterans that lies in the details of recruitment and hiring processes, tailored job and resume tools, and workplace pain points. One pain point that points to the workplace, is “imposter syndrome”, or the disbelief and doubt that a person’s abilities and title in any given field, are authentic and deserved. This crippling feeling has most often been attributed to women, but the fact of the matter is that it points to workplace leadership and discrimination practices, rather than the individuals, themselves. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome”, the authors note, “Even as we know it today, imposter syndrome puts the blame on individuals, without accounting for the historical and cultural contexts that are foundational to how it manifests in both women of color and white women. Imposter syndrome directs our view toward fixing women at work instead of fixing the places where women work.”
“Even as we know it today, imposter syndrome puts the blame on individuals, without accounting for the historical and cultural contexts that are foundational to how it manifests in both women of color and white women. Imposter syndrome directs our view toward fixing women at work instead of fixing the places where women work.”
Last month, the Department of Defense and the George Washington University Centers for Cyber Security and Privacy Research (CSPRI) and Women in Engineering (WiE), held a conference to address the challenges of the talent gap in the US, and ways to harness the skills of US women veterans to fill this gap. In a promotional video, several Armed Forces women veterans were interviewed about their experiences and their pain points in training for, and entering the cybersecurity field.
“I struggled a lot with imposter syndrome, just wondering, “Am I qualified? Do I know as much as, maybe, other people in the room, and what we’re talking about…?” And that’s kind of followed me throughout my time in college, as I entered the military, and throughout my jobs.”
Antonia Feffer, US Army CPT Veteran– 17 Alpha Cyber Officer, Cybersecurity Engineer
“One of the things I have found to be most devastating, in due confidence, is…a lot of places don’t realize the bias, the gender bias there is. You know, males get into this industry and…they’re expected automatically that they know their stuff, and it’s not necessarily… it’s not even intentional. And I know just as much, if not more, but they’re the ones that are getting the job.”
Kira Hays, US Navy Veteran– Fire Controlman, System Administrator III, JT4
“Sometimes when it came down to troubleshooting, despite us having all the same training and having the same proven track record of troubleshooting…sometimes your professional and technical opinion just wasn’t given the same weight as my male peers, whether that was with male peers, or supervisors. It was just a little more challenging to feel heard, even, once it was proven after the fact…that I had been correct the entire time.”
Melissa Donaldson, US Navy Veteran– Cryptologic Technician, Pricing & Procurement Analyst, Govt. Contractor
Imposter syndrome is not an ailment or feeling unique to women, but rather unfairly and exclusively exacerbated in women and minorities, due to systemic bias, sexism, and racism in white cisgender male-dominated workplaces. Awareness of this pain point, along with proper workplace policies that allude to ongoing checks and balances, would significantly alleviate the propulsion of chronic doubt that many minority veterans end up feeling in their jobs.
Transitioning to Civilian Life
Transitioning to civilian life comes with challenges for many women veterans, and this can be due to factors correlating to specific experiences during active duty and post active duty, whether they be traumatic injuries and disabilities, PTSD, sexual trauma (MST), interpersonal and intimate partner violence (IV), financial and child rearing hardships, unemployment, or homelessness. Unemployment, mental health, substance abuse, lack of affordable housing, and social isolation are all contributing factors to the rate of housing instability of veterans, women and men, that vary by state.
Women veterans and military spouses are often the heads of their households, and this can include raising children as single mothers. Add to this, training and studying for certifications, coursework, lectures, exams, and the overall mental preparation for taking on a new, civilian work role, and you’ve got another pain point. However, unemployment rates of women veterans, of all cohorts have been declining. Syracuse University Institute for Veterans and Military Family (IVMF) reported in a monthly newsletter at the start of the year, that women veterans unemployment rate decreased from 3.7% in December 2020, to 3.3% in January. It is noted, by comparison, that female nonveterans have a higher rate of unemployment, 6.4%, compared to female veterans.
The disparity between genders and minorities in unemployment duration, reported by Hire Heroes USA in 2019, remains unnerving given the amount of immediate pressure and responsibilities involved in transitioning back to civilian life. Their data analysis showed the median period of unemployment lasted six weeks longer for women, and that the unemployment duration varied significantly based on race, with Black, Hispanic, and Asian clients reporting longer periods of unemployment compared to white respondents.
Gender Pay Disparities
Gender pay disparities in the security world are appalling, especially in the U.S. and Australia, describes Managing Editor for SDxCentral, Jessica Lyons Hardcastle, in a recent op-ed article. Her source, Exabeam’s 2020 Cybersecurity Professional Salary, Skills and Stress report, based on a survey of 351 security professionals in the US, UK, Germany, Singapore, and Australia, shows that on average, male security professionals made $91,000 compared to $62,000 for female respondents. In Australia, the difference is even worse, where male respondents make about $131,000 whereas females make around $95,000.
Female representation in cybersecurity, in the US, still falls at just 21%, based on the 2020 (ISC)2 Cybersecurity Workforce Study, and for female veterans, being one of the only women in the room is not an uncommon experience. In 2019, the same Hire Heroes Report, mentioned above, found that starting salaries for female veterans and military spouses were lower compared to men, whereas male military members earned 17.42% more on average in the civilian workforce compared to women military members, making about $12,127 more in their average starting salary. Struggling to be heard, to be given equal opportunities, and equal wages are all pain points that cut deep for women and minority veterans, as well as military spouses in the US. Equal pay would help attract more women, more diversity into the field of cybersecurity. If a woman veteran is providing the same degree of expertise as a male counterpart, why are they not being paid the same wages? In many cases, women veterans are the providers and caretakers of their households, so why are there still not enough policies and overall ethical responsibilities being taken seriously, to uphold the dignity of every veteran and reward them equally for what they contribute to civilian work?
Leadership to Find Meaning and Create Change
In November, 2019, Women in CyberSecurity (WiCyS) launched a Veteran’s Assistance Program, with the goal of connecting female veterans to jobs in the cybersecurity industry and providing a support network for its members. The initiative aims to remove barriers, funnel growth and diversity into the cybersecurity workforce, assist female veterans as they navigate the cybersecurity industry while transitioning to civilian life, and offer support, opportunities, and community for women veterans launching their cybersecurity career.
Dr. Amelia Estwick, founding member and VP of WiCyS Mid-Atlantic Affiliate, and Director of the National Cybersecurity Institute at Excelsior College, is passionate about the diversity and inclusion of women and minorities in the field of cybersecurity. She speaks from experience, being a U.S. Army Gulf-War Veteran specializing in Information Security, with over 20 years of government service, including several technical leadership roles in the National Security Agency (NSA). In fact, she was the first African-American woman to graduate from NSA’s Computer Network Operations Development Program, which was a three-year intense cyber operations technical leadership program focused on all aspects of cyber operations to include: attack, exploitation, and defense. Prior to the launch of WiCyS Veteran’s Assistance Program, in May 2019, Dr. Estwick gave a formal statement before the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Innovation. In her own words she states, “Although I’ve had a rewarding government career, my concern for the lack of diversity amongst the cybersecurity workforce ultimately drove me to leave government service and join academia to help with the nation’s need to grow and diversify the cybersecurity talent pipeline… As the director of NCI, I have been instrumental in collaborating with organizations, such as Women in Cybersecurity (WiCyS) and the International Consortium of Minority Cybersecurity Professionals (ICMCP) to promote activities focused on recruiting, retaining, and advancing women and minorities in cybersecurity.”
Dr. Estwick goes on to describe the many contributing factors needed to effectively grow and diversify the cybersecurity talent pipeline, including: widespread academic curriculum, community college partnerships, sponsored competitions, private and public partnerships, K-12 cybersecurity education, and many more. She concludes her testimony with, “Mr. Chairman, in closing, there are several efforts that support growing and diversifying the cyber talent pipeline; however, we must be mindful of how those programs are executed to ensure equitable representation of women and minorities in the cybersecurity profession. Dr. Amelia Estwick took her leadership, highly technical skills, and adaptability to new heights, from deciding what her career path and experience was going to be, to enacting change within the entire US cybersecurity industry and community, for the cause of standing up for women and minorities in the cybersecurity workforce. When women and minority veterans have opportunities to let their leadership and transferable skills shine, they are provided the chance to find meaning in hard work, happiness while transitioning to civilian life, and create lasting change.
Resources, Training, and Scholarships
Below, you’ll find a beginning list of resources, training, and scholarships, many exclusively aimed at supporting women and minority veterans. We expect that this list will continue to grow.
CyberKnights for Women and Minority Veterans
CyberKnights is a skills-centric platform and workforce development tool engineered on the foundation of the National Institute of Standards and Technology National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education (NICE) Framework. It is designed to align effortlessly with initiatives and programs focused on building effective talent pipelines for the many demographics seeking inclusion and advancement in the cybersecurity industry, and compliments all career journeys, whether you are transitioning from the military, or a military spouse. As an individual in the CyberKnights portal you will be provided tools to showcase and leverage your highly transferable skills to prospective employers, for free, including:
- Soft Skills Assessment
- One FREE Hard Skills Assessment
- A skills portfolio of knowledge and skills you’ve earned, that grows with you as you advance in your career
- A profile to highlight your accolades, certifications, security clearances, and personality
- Access to Skills Postings (a.k.a. Job Opportunities) by Employers
- An interactive Career Journey Mapping tool, to chart your unique path from beginning-to-end
- Knowledge, skills, and career pathway alignment to the certifications you need, and educators who supply them.
Employers can search the talent pool, inventory existing skills within their company, identify skills gaps and match to talent, develop skills through educators, and much more. Educators can align their curriculum and training to the NICE Framework, leverage metrics, see what skills employers are looking for, connect with companies, recruit students and more.