Industry Trends

Cybersecurity Career Pathways for Women

By Sandra Wheatley | August 02, 2022

The cybersecurity field has faced a skills gap, struggling to find talent to fill various critical roles. This is a pressing issue that global organizations are trying to overcome – with the global cybersecurity workforce needing to grow 65% to effectively defend organizations’ critical assets according to ISC(2).

As organizations look to hire and retain cyber talent to help fill the gap, women offer the soft skills and diverse perspective the industry needs. However, most organizations struggle with recruitment and hiring of women. According to Fortinet’s 2022 Cybersecurity Skills Gap Global Report, 70% of organizations worldwide find hiring women among their top three challenges. Through the Fortinet Training Advancement Agenda (TAA) and Training Institute, Fortinet is offering women opportunities to enter and grow in the cyber industry.  

There are various roles within cyber – both technical and nontechnical roles – that women looking to reskill or seeking a new career can consider. Fortinet recently spoke with Nikki Johnson, Director of Strategic Alliances at Fortinet, to discuss her experience as a woman in cybersecurity, what she does at Fortinet and her advice to other women wanting to follow the same path.

Women in Cybersecurity: A Q&A with a Fortinet Employee

What has your career path looked like and how did you end up at Fortinet?

Nikki: I actually went to college for human resources and then immediately following undergrad, I got my Master’s degree in Information and Communication Sciences. I started at AT&T in Atlanta through their college hire program and worked there over the course of about 12 years. I started off in inside sales, then moved to outside sales, had various overlay sales roles and I ended my time at AT&T as a Global Account Executive.

When I left AT&T, I followed a previous boss who had been really supportive about my career and balancing a young family.  I went to work at other tech companies including another cybersecurity company. At these other tech companies I gained a lot of experience and eventually ended up at Fortinet after the acquisition of OPAQ in 2020. 

At Fortinet, I spent the first year leading a go to market specialist team for the FortiSASE solution. With my previous Service Provider experience, I moved into Offer Development within the MSSP/SP organization.  Now I'm in Strategic Alliances, which is inside the Corp Dev/Legal organization so it has been an interesting couple of years spanning various different roles and meeting a lot of new people within Fortinet.

What do you like most about cybersecurity ?

Nikki: I think cybersecurity is exciting because it can almost never be commoditized. There are always new threats and new ways to protect companies from the bad threat actors, it's constantly changing. There’s never a dull moment, which I really like.

I also think that is probably one of the most challenging things about cybersecurity. You don't really ever feel like you're finished with the mission. There's always something new to think about, a new threat, new devices to be secured, and the attack surface continues to grow and expand. I think that is both the thing that excites me about the field and also the thing that's most challenging.

Can you share what it’s been like to be a woman in cybersecurity, and what your experience has been?

Nikki: I don't think I realized in my early twenties how difficult it would be to be the only woman on most of the teams that I was on. I think it had some benefits because I was, and still am a hard worker, and I was able to stand out from the crowd a bit. I do think it can be a lonely place when you don’t have many women colleagues to be in community with.

Women still make up a small percentage of leadership roles in tech companies. If you ever look at a tech company's website, you might see a female exec in HR and Marketing, but the majority of leadership roles and sales roles are typically filled by men. As a woman in tech, it can sometimes feel like you're the only one that has your experience. To help change this, I think we need to do a better job at recruiting and making sure that women and especially untapped women have opportunities and are represented.

What are benefits you’ve seen when hiring women and being on teams with women?

Nikki: I think there are many benefits to teams that have a diverse group of individuals sharing ideas and information. Everyone has a role to play and the more ideas you receive from people of different backgrounds, the less likely you’ll fall into a trap of generating the same ideas from the same group of people. McKinsey & Company did a study in the UK that found that greater gender diversity on the senior executive leadership team corresponded to an overall performance uplift. For every 10% increase in gender diversity, earnings rose by 3.5%. This is measurable impact that women leaders can have on a company's bottom line. Additionally, I’ve seen women bring a strong relationship focus to the sales and channel teams I’ve been a part of.

But, we have a long way to go. There is still a challenge that women face around the gender pay gap. There was a study done by the Channel Company that came out in late 2021 which found that the pay gap increased as women moved up in the workplace. I think the challenge that we continue to have is not only getting women into executive roles but then keeping them there. It shouldn’t be complicated to pay women fairly.

As part of Fortinet’s TAA initiatives to bring more women to cybersecurity, we've partnered with nonprofit Women in Cyber Security (WiCyS) to provide free training and mentorship to women. What role have you seen training and mentorship play in your career?

Nikki: I actually think where we have the biggest opportunity is educating men in how to recruit women and how to empathize with what it means to be a woman in the tech field. Women in tech don't need to know what it's like to be a woman in tech. Men need to know what it's like to be a woman in tech. And they also have the agency to help affect change. I’ve been thinking a lot about how a company would create some sort of mentorship program with women taking the lead with male leaders so that they can understand and empathize with what it's like to be someone different than them in the workplace. It could also be a tool to help with hiring as women likely know where to find other women that might be interested in roles at the company. If you can reach people at a different level and have open and honest conversations, then I think we can really make a difference.

What advice would you give to women looking to start their career in cybersecurity?

Nikki: This industry is hard work, but if you want a fun, fast-paced environment where you can learn from intelligent people, I think it's a great space to be in. Finding a mentor early on in your career is going to be really important to help you navigate. I think the most important thing is just to be yourself. If I had it to do over again, I think I probably would have been myself a little bit more, rather than who people expected me to be, and just really stayed true to who I was. 

Find out more about how Fortinet's Training Advancement Agenda (TAA) and Training Institute programs—including the NSE Certification program, Academic Partner program, and Education Outreach program—are helping to solve the cyber skills gap and prepare the cybersecurity workforce of tomorrow.