More Women Are Needed on the Cybersecurity Front

The GW College of Professional Studies hosted a career event for women interested in a field with thousands of job openings.

Women in Cybersecurity
Teri Takai and Lydia Payne-Johnson addressed the role of women in cybersecurity during a panel discussion Thursday. (William Atkins/GW Today)
October 25, 2021

By Greg Varner

The internet explosion has brought many changes to our lives. It has changed the security environment, as shown by increasingly frequent news reports of ransomware attacks, manipulation of social media, hackers and leakers. Skilled cybersecurity professionals are in ever greater demand.

The Master of Cybersecurity Strategy and Information Management Program in the George Washington University’s College of Professional Studies hosted a virtual career event on Thursday addressing the role of women in cybersecurity. Two pioneering panelists, Teri Takai and Lydia Payne-Johnson, shared insights and advice for job seekers.

Ms. Takai is vice president at the Center for Digital Government, a national research and advisory institute on information technology policies and best practices in state and local government. Previously, she was the first woman appointed to the role of chief information officer in the United States Department of Defense.

Ms. Payne-Johnson is the director of IT security, information management and risk at GW. Previously, she served as chief privacy officer and successfully led teams at Freddie Mac and other organizations. She holds a law degree from New York Law School, where she teaches information privacy law.

According to CyberSeek, a career site for professionals in the cybersecurity job market, in the United States as of April 2021, the number of jobs currently open was 464,420. Worldwide, various sources estimate that there are 3.5 million unfilled jobs in the field, according to Cybersecurity Ventures.

Skills in demand include threat intelligence analysis; risk assessment, analysis and management; security engineering; data management; and cloud computing. Fewer than 25% of those jobs are filled by women. This situation needs to be remedied if we hope to maintain security, said Constance Uthoff, associate director of the Cybersecurity Strategy and Information Management Program, in brief opening remarks.

“We’re looking for a diverse pool of applicants who can help solve some of the challenges of the future,” Ms. Uthoff said.

Moderators Nicole Mintz, director of Career Services for CPS, and Lynn McKnight, senior recruitment and enrollment specialist, posed queries to each panelist before concluding with questions from the audience.

Much of the advice Ms. Takai and Ms. Payne-Johnson offered could be of use to job seekers in any field. After describing their own career paths, they detailed some of the challenges they faced and how they overcame them.

“In any career path, you’re going to find times where you feel like you’re stalled, not progressing in the way that you would like to progress,” Ms. Takai said. “I think what’s important at those times is to be persistent and to persevere.”

Especially in large organizations, she said, there’s a tendency to think that the organization will take care of your next move. It’s important to speak up so that people around you know the next steps you want to take. If self-doubt arises, it’s best to focus on what you bring to the table, not on the qualifications you may lack at present.

Ms. Payne-Johnson agreed and suggested it’s also important to allow for times when you might surprise yourself.

“I loved advertising for over 20 years,” she said, “so, when I was presented with this privacy officer role, I really didn’t want to do it. But I kind of sucked it up and said, ‘Let me take this challenge on.’ It turns out I loved it.”

Asked to discuss the mentors who helped them succeed, both panelists pointed not to a single person, but to helpful lessons learned from various people and experiences.

“I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re being held back because they don’t have that one person,” Ms. Takai said. “I’ve learned from people that I’ve worked with and from people that have worked for me. It’s important to look around you at everyone you work with and see what you can learn from them.”

Some important lessons, Ms. Payne-Johnson said, came from a group of women professionals with a list of 10 things women should always think about.

“One is that life is not fair, and the business world is not fair, and it just goes with the territory,” she said.

Ms. Payne-Johnson lauded Executive Women’s Forum, a group that matches women with mentors in security, privacy and risk.

“That’s an excellent place to get mentoring and to network,” she said.

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