2024 signifies a seminal moment in South African history. Not only does it mark three decades since the first democratic election, but it could also be the year that potentially heralds us into a resurgence.

By Siphindokuhle Mazibuko, director: business systems support, Middle East & Africa at Mimecast

As the country commemorates Youth Day, it’s crucial to remember and honour the resilience and courage displayed by the youth of 1976. Their bravery in the face of adversity is a testament to the strength of the South African spirit.

At the same time, we should reflect on the state of the country and the myriad of challenges faced by today’s youth, such as unemployment, education inequalities and a lack of access, particularly to fair opportunities in the technology sector.

The prominence of the digital gender gap in sectors such as cybersecurity

While youth empowerment has dominated national and international agendas, the lack of significant progress is a cause for concern. The gap between the number of youth job seekers, particularly young girls, and employment opportunities is widening. According to Statistics South Africa, the absorption rate of young men into the labour market is 31,9%, outpacing that of young women, which stands at 24,2%.

This trend, exacerbated by various socio-economic challenges, including the digital gender gap, reflects the urgent need for action to address the widespread gender inequalities in our society.

The United Nations Women defines the digital gender gap as the disparity between women, men, girls, and boys concerning digital adaptation and their relative opportunities to access, use, and benefit from digital technology.

This gap is a pressing issue that needs immediate attention, especially in our digital-first world. Too many young women are held back due to societal norms and biases. As a result, they are highly underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Globally, 35% of STEM graduates are women, and the figure is lower in South Africa, with only 13%. The underrepresentation of women is also evident in critical fields such as cybersecurity, where women account for 20% to 25% of the global workforce.

Why closing the cybersecurity gender gap is critical

Closing the gender gap in cybersecurity should be at the forefront of every organisation’s strategic planning. Diversity in perspectives, leadership, and experience is essential for business success, and this is especially true in the cybersecurity field.

We need professionals from varied backgrounds and ages to effectively combat the array of threat actors and cyber tactics. The wider the variety of people and experiences defending our networks, the better our chances of success.

Moreover, the cybersecurity industry is experiencing a significant workforce shortage, with many positions unfilled. This shortage is exacerbated when gender biases limit the pool of potential candidates. The demand for skilled, knowledgeable, and dedicated cybersecurity professionals is immense, and both women and men can find impactful, rewarding careers in this field.

By encouraging more women to enter cybersecurity, we are able to not only advance workforce equity but also enhance our ability to protect critical networks from cyber threats.

How companies can close the digital gender gap in cybersecurity

Organisations can close the gender gap in the cybersecurity industry by implementing various strategic actions. Firstly, they can prioritise potential over professional achievements, such as recruiting recent graduates or upskilling existing employees. Mentorship programs and flexible working conditions can also be critical in attracting and retaining women.

Additionally, exposing girls to technology from a young age through educational initiatives and outreach programs can inspire future cybersecurity professionals. Businesses can also make cybersecurity positions appealing to the youth and women by leveraging their organisation’s cultural advantages and offering personalised benefits to create an inclusive environment that supports diverse talent.

These steps will not only address the workforce shortage but also enhance the industry’s ability to combat cyber threats from a broader range of perspectives and experiences.