A fund worth $60 million has opened with the aim of increasing the nation’s cybersecurity capability. The second round of the government’s Cyber Security Skills Partnership Innovation Fund offers grants of between $250,000 and $3 million to enhance partnerships between industry, education providers and governments.

Minister for Science and Technology Melissa Price said the fund will build industry capability, improve diversity and create new jobs.

In particular, the government is looking to fund projects that will address the diversity of Australia’s cybersecurity workforce, particularly those that will boost the participation of women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people based in regional and remote areas and people with neurodiverse backgrounds.

With the cybersecurity workforce expected to grow significantly in coming years, the government is keen to help foster partnerships between industry and education providers.

“A number of activities are eligible for support, from helping students into training and career pathways, to building the capability of job-ready professionals through industry traineeships and work experience programs,” Price said.

Looking to extend cyber education to students, the government has also just announced a new $14.9 million initiative to boost cybersecurity skills and prepare young people for future careers in cyber security. Questacon’s Cyber Ready Program uses challenges and teacher training modules for primary, secondary and tertiary students.

This also has a particular focus on underrepresented groups with the goal of strengthening the future cyber workforce by increasing diversity.

A focus on diversity

While the government looks to give funding support to diversity, the industry also recognises its role in improving things.

Founder and executive director of the Australian Women in Security Network (AWSN), Jacqui Loustau sees diversity as vital to help counter rapidly evolving threats by ensuring the industry “has all types of people with differing cybersecurity skills and abilities at the table making decisions, solving problems, and communicating with different perspectives”.

Loustau said it’s a collaborative effort between businesses and government, which is going to take time to deliver results, but will be worth it.

“It’s not only about supporting people of minority ethnic, gender or neurodiverse backgrounds, but also a huge part of this is a collaboration effort between all levels of an organisation to provide a supportive environment where innovation and difference in opinion is valued and everyone can thrive,” she told Information Age.

However, Loustau also pointed out that improving diversity is a delicate balance.

“An organisation’s culture needs to be ready and willing in order for it to work.

If you push diversity agendas too strongly and too early, it can make it difficult for the minority groups to feel included as they are treated like the ‘person who go the job just because they were a diversity hire’. Being a good role model helps not only create a culture where all staff can get on with their job, but also inspires others to follow suit,” she said.

Industry-driven push for culture change

One initiative underway to deal with the internal willingness of organisations to embrace diversity is CyberShift Alliance, a cross-industry association looking to address culture change and improve retention the industry.

The alliance was born from an International Women’s Day event run by AWSN and ISACA, the Information Systems Audit and Control Association, to recognise those in the industry want to be responsible for improving the situation.

It will utilise research, awareness raising, measurement and defining actions to improve the culture in cybersecurity.

Laura Less, VP ISACA Sydney, explained to Information Age that if the industry was a great place to work, it wouldn’t need the push. A group of industry professionals decided to band together to create the change need to make the industry a great choice for women and diverse minorities

“We found our messages resonated widely with the experiences of practitioners across the industry,” she said.

Jo Stewart-Rattray, Vice-Chair of ACS' South Australia branch, who helped launch ISACA’s global SheLeadsTech program to promote gender equality, believes addressing the gender imbalance is everyone’s responsibility – men, women, employers, educators and industry associations – and requires a multi-faceted approach to overcome narrow stereotypes and systemic barriers.

“It involves businesses providing flexible work options and continuing those put in place during the pandemic lockdowns, sponsoring and encouraging young professionals to understand various career paths and rewards, and instilling in female students the confidence to follow their passion and have resilience,” she told Information Age.

On a practical level, this includes improving rural infrastructure, improving educational opportunities through technology-driven remote learning and development opportunities, providing mentors and female role models, and closing the gender pay gap.

“Technology is the one common denominator that can mitigate many of the challenges facing women in rural Australia and enhance economic opportunity, education and personal safety,” she said.

The innovation fund, which closes on 6 December, is part of the government’s $81 million Cyber Security National Workforce Growth Program, itself part of the national Cyber Security Strategy, and will fund specialist cybersecurity courses, professional development, apprenticeships and internships, and establishing cyber labs and training facilities.