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A fast-growing tech field that welcomes women

As business and government keep gathering staggering amounts of data and putting it to work, devising ways to protect it from hackers is a bigger, more complicated headache with every passing day. The latest case in point, among many, of the mess that results when the black hats win: The cyber break-in at the U.S. Postal Service earlier this week.

So, it’s no surprise that companies plan to hire at least 3,000 more data-privacy analysts and managers in the next 12 months, according to a new survey by the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP). The group now has about 19,000 members in 80 countries, up from 14,500 earlier this year.

American companies spend $2.5 billion a year to protect their data, and “we expect that to reach $3 billion in 2015,” says Trevor Hughes, the IAPP’s president and CEO, who foresees even more and faster growth beyond that. “The privacy field is really still in its infancy.”

It’s also a Big Data-driven specialty that’s almost half (48%) female, a sharp contrast from other tech fields, where women are still a beleaguered minority. And that’s not all. Many female privacy mavens are senior managers who out-earn their male peers. Among executives earning between $200,000 and $300,000 a year, 42% are women, while 39% are men, the IAPP survey notes. Women fare even better at the C-suite level. Among chief privacy officers, about 17% with salaries above $300,000 are female, versus just 8% male.

Hughes sees two reasons for women’s ascendancy in this area. First, privacy specialists have to keep companies in compliance with a plethora of federal and state laws and FTC regulations in the U.S., as well as their legal and regulatory counterparts abroad. So “many people come from a legal or compliance background, as well as operational management, and these are areas where there have been more women for longer than in tech,” he says.

Second, women practically invented this specialty, so there’s no shortage of senior female role models. “Ten or 15 years ago, the title of chief privacy officer was a novelty. Companies were just beginning to see the value of securing their data,” Hughes recalls. “So some phenomenal women stepped into those roles very early on and really pioneered the field.”

One of them was Hilary Wandall, chief privacy officer at Merck (MRK) since 2004. She started at the company as a biochemist and molecular biology researcher 21 years ago, then earned a law degree, an MBA, and a master’s degree in bioethics.

Along the way, she moved from the lab to the marketing department, “at just the moment when we were creating new websites, and we needed an Internet privacy policy,” Wandall recalls. Her main job now is leak-proofing Merck’s vast amounts of drug research data, customer information, and personal details on the company’s 71,000 employees worldwide.

What advice would Wandall give anyone who wants to get into the field? A strong tech background is a plus, but data privacy “tends to attract people who are interested in how technology intersects with social issues and public policy,” she says. A knack for dealing with complexity helps, too. “Figuring out how the technical and human problems fit together is like doing a 3-dimensional puzzle.”