Top Women in Cybersecurity keynote: A cybersecurity career is harder than ChatGPT paints it — but just as rewarding

ChatGPT is good for a lot of things, but don’t ask it to create a realistic scenario for a woman who wants a career in cybersecurity.

In her keynote address for this year’s IT World Canada Top Women in Cybersecurity event, Laura Payne, chief enablement officer and vice-president of security consulting at Canadian-based White Tuque, said the chatbot creates the same stereotypes about women that exist in the real world.

Her point, though, was not that ChatGPT shouldn’t be relied on for planning a career path. The lesson is that women — and other groups — have a long way to go before they are appreciated by a male-dominated profession.

Let’s start at the beginning: Payne asked the chatbot to create a story about a woman in cybersecurity who surpassed expectations.

It created “Emily Roberts,” who, when she was young, became passionate about computers and cybersecurity, got a scholarship to a university where she overcame challenges, excelled in her coursework, and then was hired by a prestigious cybersecurity firm’s incident response team. She and her team successfully neutralized an attack on a financial institution and recovered stolen data. And that story became an inspiration to the industry. Soon she was promoted to a CSO, inspiring other women to seek careers in cybersecurity.

ChatGPT fabricated that from scanning the internet. To be fair, it was asked to create a story with a happy ending. And it got some things right, Payne said: Women are talented and hardworking.

“Also embedded in the story was the repeated theme of “Emily” overcoming a male-dominated industry. I didn’t prompt ChatGPT to highlight the challenges women face in this field, but it sure picked up that there’s a lot of literature on the internet referring to cybersecurity as a male-dominated industry that’s challenging for women to succeed in.”

But, Payne said, “a story like Emily’s is really problematic to understanding what real achievement in our industry means.”

First, Payne said, the chatbot gave the heroine an Anglo-Saxon name. By contrast, Payne said, the 170 nominees for this year’s event have many backgrounds. “It means the world of people looking to enter the field can see trailblazers and have mentors who are authentic examples of people like themselves who have had success,” she said.

Second, it’s not common for people to focus on cybersecurity at a young age. Yet many who enter the profession with undergrad degrees in other fields and move later into computer science become “fabulously successful.”

Third, there won’t be early recognition of your talent by others. “There are only a few people in your life who will be your cheerleaders,” said Payne. “Almost everyone else will be too busy doing their own thing to notice what you’re doing.” But, she added, that’s OK: You don’t have to have everyone on your side to be successful.

Fourth, tackle challenges but don’t expect a linear reward for your work. You won’t solve a major data breach on your first assignment. “The real piece of fiction,” Payne said, was how fast “Emily” became a CSO, achieving in months what most women — and men — take years to get.

“The takeaway from this is the stories we share are written in a way that skips the hard work, grit, and grind that it takes to become successful.” One hundred and fifty-word biographies make it seem like a person’s achievements happened overnight, Payne said.

Also missing in “Emily’s” story are the biases and challenges that women face, including personality conflicts, stress in the IT industry, and problems raising a family and having a career.

“It’s so important to surround yourself with people who are good judges of situations and character,” Payne said, “so when you run into a challenge — and you will — that you’re not alone and you have someone that can provide outside perspective.”

Finally, Payne said, there are more career paths in cybersecurity than incident response. “As our honourees show, there are so many more specialties in our field that align with the many talents and interests potential cybersecurity professionals can bring. The hard part is just getting that first opportunity to show your abilities.”

Payne was one of the three judges who chose the 20 finalists honoured with the title of Top Woman in Cybersecurity for 2023. Their stories are the ones that should be spread, she said.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer. Former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, Howard has written for several of ITWC's sister publications, including Before arriving at ITWC he served as a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times.

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