A global community of women working in cybersecurity believes their military counterparts are potential perfect fits for the burgeoning industry.
“The current state of cybersecurity needs improvement, and a team of individuals with different personalities and backgrounds can influence positive change,” said retired Air Force Master Sgt. Latoyia Overton. “You do not have to fit a certain mold or be ‘geeky’ in order to add value to the cybersecurity field.”
Cybersecurity — the practice of protecting systems, networks, and programs from digital attacks — as a market was worth $167.13 billion in 2020, according to Grand View Research reports. It’s expected to expand even further this year. Yet only 20 to 24% of cybersecurity workers, studies show, are women. That’s a perfect chance, Overton says, for military women — either serving or out — to contribute their acquired skills to a steady field.
“Data analytics, team-building, and project management, among other skills, are all needed for success,” Overton said. “Those [outdated] stereotypes are being broken, as individuals with different personalities are finding cyber roles that fits their talents.”
Overton previously worked as the Cyber Systems Coordinator at Barksdale Air Force Base. Despite not having a technology-related degree or any previous technology experience, she successfully helped ensure network security for all Air Force Global Strike installations. Thanks to military educational opportunities, she eventually earned degrees in computer studies and cybersecurity. Today, Overton uses her Air Force cybersecurity experience in her role as Senior Cyber Defense Technologist II/Security Control Assessor at Raytheon Missiles & Defense.
“I’ve worked several jobs in the Air Force ranging from administrative to technical as well as management,” said Overton. “My current role [at Raytheon] is not the same, but my experiences in the Air Force helped build my confidence and enhanced my abilities as a cyber professional.”
Former soldier Julia Davila also did not have technology degrees or certifications when she began her foray into cybersecurity in 2014. Yet today, she is the co-founder of ZibaSec, a cybersecurity firm that helps companies strengthen their networks through simulated cyberattacks.
“I get to run simulated attacks against the FBI every month, which is really badass,” she said. “It’s kind of surreal to be able to say that.”
Overton and Davila both volunteer as mentors for female veterans with Women in Cybersecurity (WiCyS), a worldwide alliance of female cyber professionals. Both have seen their fair share of gender discrimination in the workplace, they say.
Davila was giving an hour–long presentation to a group of men while consulting at a software company. Halfway through, a man entered and began engaging in small talk with each person there, ignoring Davila’s formal presentation happening directly in front of him.
“Who are you?” he finally asked. Davila explained that she was a consultant. “That’s cool,” he replied. “You should know that I don’t discriminate against vendors, but I do discriminate against women.”
The other workers apologized profusely. Still, Davila says, “It was very Mad Men-esque.”
Overton, meanwhile, was the only woman on a project at her first post-Air Force job. The lack of gender and ethnic diversity disheartened her, she says, as well as the resulting attitudes from her male peers. Still, the experience shaped her for the better.
“While it was difficult to collaborate with stakeholders who did not understand the importance of cybersecurity, I maintained my professionalism, recorded and documented the challenges, and sought to influence change,” she said. “I am confident that as more women pursue cyber careers, these types of environments will become more inclusive.”
That’s the goal of WiCyS, an organization that offers multiple forms of assistance for women veterans interested in cybersecurity. Overton also volunteers regularly with cyber workshops for high schoolers in Maricopa County, Arizona. The increasing number of cyber opportunities for young people — especially females — excites her.
“I believe an increased presence of cybersecurity professionals is necessary to defend every organization against attacks and exploitation,” she said. “I believe there will be plenty of opportunities for women to contribute.”
Davila and Overton believe the time is right for an influx of female veterans in the industry.
“As women in a technology-related field, we must persevere, learn, and remain confident in our abilities,” Overton said. “I’m glad to be a woman in a cybersecurity career.”