Early education efforts is key to filling cybersecurity talent and gender gaps, reports Robert Abel.

From a young age, Serita Sargent was always interested in technology and would take apart her mom’s old Nokia phones for fun. But it wasn’t until her freshman year of high school that her hobby turned into a passion. She found her calling in life when she participated one week in Hour of Code, a nonprofit organization that aims to encourage students and others to learn computer science.

 “It was truly amazing and mind-blowing to me to be able to put lines and blocks together to create something,” Sargent says. “I started teaching myself code from there, but I wasn’t alone.”

Her school had a Technology Student Association that allowed her to meet other girls who loved code just as much as she did. Sargent’s town also held Women in Technology meetings and she was able to spend time with Black Girls Code, a nonprofit that focuses on technology education for African-American girls.

“I’ve never felt so empowered and to be in a room filled with so many beautiful and intelligent young girls truly inspired me to keep going,” Sargent says. “I think young girls need motivation more than anything and to know that Barbies aren’t the only thing they’re allowed to play with.”

Sargent continued to follow her passion during her higher education and went on to receive an (ISC)2 Women in Cybersecurity Scholarship. Not everyone, though, has the opportunity to be immersed in a supportive environment with programs geared toward helping women succeed in STEM fields which plays a factor in the shortage of women in cybersecurity.  

Getting more women into the field requires getting more women involved in computer sciences at an earlier age and giving them opportunities similar to those Sargent had. And that takes more educational efforts geared toward showing girls the opportunities the field offers.

Studies have shown that more diverse workforces lead to better ideas, products and even an overall increase in profitability. Yet despite those benefits, nearly all of the major tech companies that have released diversity reports reveal the overwhelming of their tech staff as male, including Uber at 85 percent male, Facebook at 83 percent male, and Apple fairing out slightly better at 77 percent male.

Achieving more diversity in tech will require both public and private sector efforts to “prime the pipeline” by integrating computer science into the everyday curriculum, providing more extra-curricular coding programs, and hosting capture-the-flag competitions, all of which offer insight into what cybersecurity is actually about.

STEM education has to be emphasized from a very young age, as early as kindergarten or first grade, to motivate more girls to get into the field. Bhavani Thuraisingham, professor of computer science at the University of Texas, tells SC Media.

“It is well known that women like jobs that are nurturing – like medicine, nursing and teaching. Engineering and technology jobs are not,” Thuraisingham (left) says. “So it has to be stressed to the girls that engineering and technology work helps humans.”

Educators must help girls understand that we would not have companies like Facebook and Instagram if not for technology and that every effort must be made to train girls in technology from an early age to help develop an early interest, she explains.

“Unlike hardcore engineering subjects, IT can be made much more appealing to girls, especially application-oriented subjects like human computer interaction and social media,” Thuraisingham says. 

More importantly, she says, women need role models – and while this may have improved a lot with more women becoming CEOs and vice presidents – this abyss could be keeping more girls from getting into technology. Getting more young girls interested in tech alone isn’t enough to get women involved in cybersecurity.

More parents, guidance counselors and even computer science teachers need to be educated in the possibilities that cybersecurity offers to help encourage more young people to get into the field through recommendation.

“There are computer geniuses in school right now who don’t even know cybersecurity is an option,” Kristin Judge (right), director of special projects and government relations at the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA), tells SC Media. Judge says one of the biggest barriers to children getting into tech are the adults who are positioned to bring these opportunities to the student’s attention.

Sadly, some, including computer science teachers, aren’t comfortable speaking on the topic because they may not be familiar with what exactly cybersecurity professionals do, she says.

She goes on to say that if more parents and teachers felt empowered to talk to students about cybersecurity kids would be more likely to pursue the path. The same goes for teachers and anyone else in a position to encourage a child’s educational decisions.

Judge adds that most people over 40 are a bit intimidated by technology and the cybersecurity careers are not as familiar to them as a doctor or lawyer’s profession. “Everyone knows what doctors and lawyers do and how to get those jobs,” Judge says. “Most people even know a doctor or lawyer personally. Can we say the same for a chief information security officer?”

Experts agree. Patrick Craven, director of the Center for Cyber Safety and Education (formerly the (ISC)² Foundation) also emphasizes the importance of getting more teachers on board.

”We need to spread awareness to both teachers and parents that cybersecurity is a fun and thriving career option that is ideal for all genders,” Craven says. “I also believe that assuming certain gender-based roles as an undertone of our society can discourage women from getting involved in tech.”

Craven says there are generations of teachers, firefighters and law enforcement officers, but high-tech and specifically IT security positions are still in their first generation of development.

“Children don’t know how their phone or iPad works,” Craven (left) says. “They don’t realize there are a lot of people behind the design of the tools and games they use every day. And they don’t imagine that someday they could do the same thing. We need to shed a light on these exciting, hidden careers.”

A lack of outreach efforts were also cited as reasons that women are discouraged to go into cyber careers.

“It’s not a natural career path for them to look into,” Judge says, adding that it’s important to also show women that a lot of the opportunities in cybersecurity aren’t solely technical. “You don’t have to be a hacker and there are other ways for women to get involved in cybersecurity, such as by teaching best practices,” she says.

Teachers should be looking at aptitude tests and informing kids who enjoy problem-solving that there are opportunities in cybersecurity, Judge says. It’s important that children understand that they don’t have to be experts to pursue a career in the field and there are certificate programs that people can do to get into the field without having to go to school four years for a traditional degree.

“There are really interesting problems to solve if you like solving puzzles and want to apply that to real world problems, you can apply that to the real thing in STEM careers, says Phyllis Frankl, a computer science and engineering professor at New York University.

Further, Judge notes that many capture-the-flag competitions and coding camps are significantly cheaper than robotics clubs and that some organizations even offer free admission to all-girl teams.

Thuraisingham adds that coding camps for girls are a good idea because it provides an environment where girls focus completely on their work without being intimidated by boys. These programs also help dispel the myths and stereotypes that surround hackers and computer scientists and can show women that there is a place for them in the industry.

“While some improvements are being made in big cities, we are failing our children, especially girls, in the rural areas,” Thuraisingham says. “It is frustrating that there is no funding for educating rural America. When there is a lack of resources, parents usually tend to favor the sons and spend the money on the boy’s education.

Thuraisingham adds that high quality affordable education should be a right of every child, pointing out that higher education funding is also an obstacle to meeting cybersecurity needs and in diversifying the workforce. In fact, she says many students don’t pursue upper level degrees out of fear of taking on more debt in student loans and if more tech companies were willing to share the cost of graduate-level education, then more students, including women, would be willing to go into the field.

Some researchers argue that it’s the private sector’s responsibility to pitch in on these early education efforts.

“Tech companies have a responsibility to engage people in technology at every stage of their lives,” Zassmin Montes de Oca, a board vice chair and chief technology officer at Women Who Code, tells SC Media.

de Oca says it’s important to provide support to career-aged engineers by recognizing the accomplishments of the women who are already in the industry and encouraging them to succeed.

“In order to change the industry, we need to alter the way that people perceive technology,” de Oca (right) says. “The best way to do that is to recognize the accomplishments of the many diverse engineers that are already leaders and heroes of tech, while also encouraging others and providing them with the tools to become the role models of tomorrow.”

Some researchers feel that while tech companies may support individual efforts to get more women involved in security, it’s important to understand that they have a business to run. “They don’t care where you come from provided you can do the job,” Thuraisingham says. “Therefore, the incentive is not there for them to nurture U.S. citizens in tech. This is because there are thousands of highly qualified men and women in tech who can fill the positions they have.”

Researchers also emphasize the importance of breaking stereotypes as well as the need for making tech feel more inclusive. Frankl, for instance, emphasizes that while women have made significant progress in other traditionally male fields, such as medicine and other sciences, girls interested in tech are still thought of as the nerdy outcast. On top of this, there isn’t a heavy portrayal of women in tech in the media.

 “Some say women are disinterested in tech, this isn’t true” Frankl says. “They use it all the time and just haven’t had the opportunity to see themselves as the creators of tech or to understand how they can solve problems dealing with poverty and health care by using tech.”

Most importantly, we need to make an effort and take the extra step to support and encourage young people of all backgrounds and let them know that there is a place for them in tech and cybersecurity. “We need to encourage them to be who they strive and want to be!” Sargent says. “Encourage and push these wonderful programs to get them involved. Most of all we need to love them and let them know they’re capable of anything they put their minds to.


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GREAT RETURNS: Diversity in tech

It’s no secret that tech companies need to do more to diversify the gender of their staff, but effort is also needed to increase the diversity in other areas well.

While women make up approximately 25 percent of the computing work force, women of color only account for less than 10 percent, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology.

And while Blacks and Latinos as a whole represent an estimated 13.3 and 17.6 percent of the nation’s population respectively, neither group represents more than four percent of the technical staff at top firms like Facebook, Uber, Twitter and Google, although it’s worth noting that Apple’s tech staff is eight percent black and eight percent Latino, respectively.

But diversity issues aren’t so black and white, both figuratively and literally. While most minority groups are underrepresented, Asian men are over-represented in tech – which creates unique problems.

“I think at least a third of Silicon Valley has Indian men working in tech,” says Bhavani Thuraisingham, professor of computer science at the University of Texas. “It has become very natural now for VCs to expect Indian men to be part of a team.”

Thuraisingham says people want to hire those who look like them and since there are very few men from the disadvantaged minority groups (usually men of color) and women (any group), in tech it is hard for these people to break in. People’s perception of a cybersecurity may play a factor. 

“Ask 10 people to describe the stereotype for a computer engineer,” says Kristin Judge, director of special projects and government affairs a the National Cyber Security Alliance. “Nine of 10 will most likely describe a white, 24-year-old male.”

Stereotypes around cybersecurity are not as defined yet there is still an opportunity to get women and people of color who are making a difference in cybersecurity in the spotlight, Judge says.

In addition to multiple studies showing how diverse workforces yield better products and increased profits, diverse workforces also directly benefit companies by breeding creativity and introducing various viewpoints and solutions, says David Shearer (left), CEO at (ISC)2.

“To close the workforce gap and address the world’s cybersecurity challenges, we need to reach people of color, women and those with diverse educational backgrounds,” Shearer says. “Kids need mentors and role models to look up to. The industry needs more people of color in leadership and technical positions to serve as role models for kids to feel inspired.”

Experts agree more people of color serving as role models to younger talent can make a big difference.

“I believe that one of the biggest challenges for people of color is that they don’t see many role models who resemble them in tech,” says Patrick Craven, dirrector of the Center for Cyber Safety and Education. “Role models can play a big factor in a child deciding to pursue a certain career field or a young student deciding his/her major for college.”

Shearer also says more sponsorship opportunities within organizations for women and minorities will help break the barriers that are holding women and minorities back from pursuing a career in cyber or seeking executive level jobs.

 “The responsibility then rests on the tech companies to offer more opportunities for people of color to climb the ranks and effectively make an impact on the kids that look up to them,” Shearer says .“Any company that hasn’t realized that Millennials represent the most diverse generation of our time is going to get caught unprepared to leverage diversity.”

Companies can even the playing field by looking for unfair biases in their hiring and promotional practices that may be going under the radar, says Zassmin Montes de Oca, board vice chair and chief technology officer (CTO) at Women Who Code.

“One way to limit some of the challenges faced by minorities in the tech industry is for companies to institute more and better double-blind business practices when making hiring, salary and promotion decisions,” says de Oca says. “This can help to curb the unconscious bias that can color a business’s practices, leading to a more fair and open work environment for everyone to succeed in.”

Companies can also take a more direct approach to diversifying their staff and priming the pipeline. Judge says companies could hire a cybersecurity liaison who would be responsible for educating school leadership, teachers, parents and school counselors on curriculum and career path information.

Individuals could also contribute to the cause through volunteer mentoring programs geared toward getting women and minorities into tech.

“Volunteerism is a wonderful thing, but trying to address problems through volunteerism often yields mixed results,” Shearer says. “Life happens and it frequently impacts volunteers’ abilities to contribute to a wonderful cause like this.”

“We need solutions that are sustainable and which, unfortunately, often requires financial resources,” Shearer says. While some companies (such as his own) are offering cybersecurity scholarships for women, there is still much work that needs to be done to expose more youth to these career paths.

“There is a lot of secrecy surrounding information security careers and many misconceptions,” Shearer says. “First, we need to tear down those myths and do a better job communicating the extensive job possibilities for women, youth and minorities.”

While no one solution will fully diversify the tech work force, it’s important that we all do our part in preparing and welcoming the next generation into cybersecurity.