Priming the pipeline: Education
Priming the pipeline: Education

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.