Industry Trends

Breaking Down STEM Perception Barriers and Tackling a Career in Cybersecurity

By Sandra Wheatley | August 12, 2021

Tackling a Career in Cybersecurity

Fortinet’s Training Advancement Agenda (TAA) and NSE Training Institute programs are focused on bridging the cyber skills gap by demystifying and breaking down stereotypes about the field of cybersecurity. Through these initiatives our goal is to educate and bring more underrepresented groups, like women, into a career in cybersecurity. In addition, Fortinet’s intern program aims to expose students to opportunities in the dynamic and fast-growing cybersecurity industry.

I had a conversation with two recent interns at Fortinet to get their insights into what interested them about a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) career in cybersecurity, what obstacles they have faced, and what they think we can do to help break down perception barriers. 

Meet our cybersecurity career interns, Taylor Leslie and Claire Smerdon.

Taylor Leslie

Claire Smerdon

Inside Sales intern based in Texas

Marketing Ops intern based in SF Bay Area

Attends Dallas Baptist University on a tennis scholarship

Attends the University of Southern California as a Dean’s Scholar

Study focus: Business finance

Study focus: Computer science and business administration

Fun fact: Has traveled the world in tennis tournaments

Fun fact: Lifelong competitive soccer player

A Little Background: STEM Historically

It may come as no surprise that males have dominated STEM-related careers for years. Going way back to 1970, we see that women made up 38% of all U.S. workers but only 8% of STEM workers.1 By 2019, however, the STEM proportion had increased to 27% as women comprised 48% of all workers.2 Women account for a mere 25% of people working in computer occupations, vastly underrepresented in the ranks of engineers and architects (15%).

False Perception of STEM 

One of the biggest misconceptions keeping women from embarking on a career in the STEM field is that you must bring a lot of very specific experience. But, there are STEM careers that don’t require multiple years of computer science or a degree in engineering. Sometimes innate skills, tenacity, and a healthy dose of curiosity can be as valuable as relevant experience.

Claire recalls: “In high school and college, everything that I researched and read about [STEM] was for men. Any man can go into computer science and no one is going to look at them and think you really don't belong. But for females, there's a very strict stereotype and box for what they expect you to be. Whenever I told people what I was interested in, there was often a hesitation, or ‘Are you sure?’ or ‘Really? That's so great!’ as if people were even more impressed that I was going into STEM just because of what I looked like.” 

Taylor adds: “I agree with Claire, there definitely is a stereotype that woman shouldn't be in the STEM field, but it’s because they aren't exposed to it. But I also don't think most women understand the perception that when you go into a STEM field you don't necessarily have to have all of that tech knowledge.” 

Claire talks a little bit about her motivation: “I think, as a female going into a male-dominated space, you just have to learn to be motivated by doing the unknown and by breaking down the glass ceiling and using any prejudice or any comments or hesitation toward you as fuel to just prove them wrong. Actions speak louder than words.”

Exposure is Key with STEM

Taylor (and research agrees with her) thinks that early exposure to STEM is a positive step, especially for women, and internships and training can help lure more women into the field. “I think women definitely need to have a little bit more exposure to it. When you are a college student, that's when you start to get that exposure and when you have to start to decide what you want to do with your life.”

Claire adds: “I was always very lucky because there was such an emphasis on STEM growing up and I was encouraged to do that.” 

STEM Requires Training and Support

Taking that first jump into the unknown is scary, no matter what the situation. We asked Claire and Taylor what it was that got them over the hurdle to give a cybersecurity career a shot. 

Taylor says: “I like to prove people wrong. I grew up playing tennis my whole life, so I'm very competitive. And with the stereotype of men belonging in cybersecurity, I wanted to go in and prove to people and say ‘no, look at me. I'm doing this; I'm succeeding.’ That's what really pushed me into cybersecurity and really made me take that leap.”

Claire thinks that: “The one thing that is really attractive about cybersecurity is that I enjoy the technical aspect, and I want to work in the high-tech field. Cybersecurity is something that does improve the world and is an essential infrastructure. You do feel motivated, not because you're making money or the stock is doing really well, but because you're saving people's lives and protecting hospitals and governments and education.”

Taylor was anxious at first, but after some training and support, she started to think: “I can do it, but I think it's going to take a lot of work, because there are a lot of smart people out here. But after going through the [NSE] training, I was able to talk with, for example, major account managers and national account managers, and be able to understand Fortinet and its products and partners and customers and distribution. So, I definitely think getting this internship experience has 100% helped me.”

Claire muses: “One thing that I found is that, for example, computer science is a really creative field. It's like learning a language.”

A Career in Cybersecurity Improves the World and is Essential with STEM

Fortinet is committed to providing more opportunities and resources to women and students like Claire and Taylor through our various initiatives and internship program to bring more talent into the industry as a way to close the skills gap. Fortinet’s internship program has enabled Claire and Taylor to apply their interests, skills, and passions to their internship in a career in cybersecurity, despite their hesitations and barriers to entry. Now they are helping to get the word out and expose the perception barriers to help close the cyber skills gap while expanding their knowledge and experience hands-on at Fortinet. 

Find out more about how Fortinet’s Training Advancement Agenda (TAA) and NSE Training Institute programs, including the Certification ProgramSecurity Academy Program and Veterans Program, are helping to solve the cyber skills gap and prepare the cybersecurity workforce of tomorrow.