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Siphindokuhle Mazibuko, Middle East and Africa director of business systems support for email security leader Mimecast.


Call for more women
in cybersecurity

At the recent AWS re:Inforce conference, a gender show of force highlighted the role of women in tech, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

A strong call is being made globally for women to be more involved in technology, and especially in cybersecurity.

At the recent Amazon Web Services (AWS) re:Inforce cybersecurity conference in Philadelphia, Jenny Brinkley, director of Amazon Security, told Business Times that there was a critical need for diversity in this field.

In South Africa, the call was reinforced by Siphindokuhle Mazibuko, Middle East and Africa director of business systems support for email security leader Mimecast. She pointed out that women were highly underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

“Diversity in perspectives, leadership, and experience is essential for business success, and this is especially true in the cybersecurity field,” she said.

Brinkley, co-founder of an AI start-up that was bought by AWS in 2016, said that the urgent need to attract more women to cybersecurity careers was becoming increasingly apparent as cyber threats grew more sophisticated.

She called for a multifaceted approach involving education, mentorship, practical experience, and systemic support to address the gender gap.

The starting point in a country like South Africa, said Brinkley, was apprenticeship.

“We need to change the way that we think about four year degree programmes for people to be able to get into the job market. Not everybody should be going down that path if it might not work for them.

“For example, in our data centres, one of the biggest areas that we hire for are for data centre technicians. These are entry level roles for individuals that are managing the infrastructure of data centres. It is such an integral, important job, but a lot of these locations are outside big metropolitan areas, so you have a gap in bringing in talent.

“Yet, once you get a foothold in those types of jobs, it opens up so much opportunity across the security landscape. Security jobs pay very well and offer people a way to move above the poverty line, and to create multi-generational wealth.

“It’s the normalisation of what’s possible and being able to break it down in a way that makes it so it’s accessible to everybody. Give me somebody that’s curious. Give me somebody with a mission-driven heart that wants to protect infrastructure and people and keep them safe. Those are the individuals that you can really train.”

Beyond apprenticeships and normalisation of such roles, said Brinkley. AWS was making big bets on a systemic level.

“It’s a lot of partnership with academia, like helping kids learn to understand the types of careers that are available to them in the future. We invest locally in communities, funding scholarships, and helping design and develop curricula and make them ubiquitous for the entire industry, not just serving our purpose, but for every single type of technology provider.”

The role of government in this process must revolve around appreciating how technology plays a part in government, the private sector, and the lives of everyday citizens.

Brinkley is part of a growing cohort of women holding senior technical positions in Amazon and AWS. During re:Inforce, she joined an all-female panel  discussion that addressed the issue of 57,000 job vacancies in cybersecurity in the United States alone. With her on the panel were Neha Rungta, director of applied science at AWS, Brigid Johnson, director of AWS Identity, and Caitlin Shim, general manager of cloud governance, along with another four senior women executives, in a gender show of force.

Their joint mission statement for the panel read: “Our commitment to building a culture of security includes fostering diversity within this industry and beyond the walls of Amazon and AWS.”

At an expo that formed part of re:Inforce, exhibitors included a non-profit organisation called Woman in Cybersecurity (WiCyS), which is focused on diversity and inclusion in the sector globally. It has members in 85 countries, including South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. It says it has seen the proportion of women employed in cybersecurity in the USA rise from 11% in 2014, the year after it was founded, to 24% last year.

Brinkley says partnerships with organisations like Girls Who Code and WiCyS are vital. “We partner really closely with them. It’s one of the largest organisations AWS invests in for female security engineers.”

According to United Nations Women, 35% of STEM graduates globally are women, but the figure in South Africa is only 13%.

Mazibuko said: “The underrepresentation of women is also evident in critical fields such as cybersecurity, where women account for  20-25% of the global workforce. According to Statistics SA, the absorption rate of young men into the labour market is 31.9%, outpacing that of young women, which stands at 24.2%. This trend, exacerbated by various socio-economic challenges, including the digital gender gap, reflects the urgent need for action to address the widespread gender inequalities in our society.

“The current workforce shortage in cybersecurity, exacerbated by gender biases, underscores the need to attract more women to the field. The wider the variety of people and experiences defending our networks, the better our chances of success.

“Closing the gender gap in cybersecurity should be at the forefront of every organisation’s strategic planning,”

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