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If you’ve ever been to a security conference, you may be used to the familiar sight of rooms full of men and just a smattering of women. Last month, I had the new-to-me experience of being at a security conference that was attended solely by women. This experience of being surrounded by hundreds of women working in my field highlighted for me the fact that, while the percentage of women in information security jobs is decreasing, there are still an awful lot of us out there. And, in fact, that was the subject of my Birds of a Feather discussion at the recent National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education (NICE) conference.
Part of my purpose in proposing the talk to the NICE conference was to show women and other minorities in tech that they are not alone, by sharing the stories of others who have been working in the information security industry for years. I asked each of my interviewees what things they found most welcoming about working in this industry, and what things they found uncomfortable.
Same old game, with a few twists
In those stories, there were elements that were entirely predictable: the things that drew them in, and the things that they felt pushed them away. They all talked about the joys of a shared feeling of purpose, of a casual yet passionate atmosphere, and the chance to make exciting new technology. But also a supposed meritocracy that was tinged with bias and competitiveness, where people who were different had to talk twice as loud and work twice as hard to be considered equal.
But there were a few elements of peoples’ stories that surprised me, such as the ways in which women are making each others’ jobs more difficult, and ways in which military-related security jobs can be more welcoming.
As more young women are entering the ranks, there is a growing expectation that women should present themselves in a stereotypically feminine way. A woman presenting herself more gender-neutrally is considered to be working against the “cause” of getting women more visibility. Likewise, women who view their position through a lens of scarcity (if you’ve ever seen the movie The Highlander: “There can be only one”), may act against other women that they feel overshadow them rather than helping each other to receive more of the spotlight.
Many people have an image of the military – as well as its related and supporting organizations – of having a culture that can be unfriendly if you’re not a heterosexual white male. However, according to one of my interviewees whose experience seems to be backed up by a growing number of women who’re now filling high-level, private sector cybersecurity positions, the military can be a great place to grow your skills.
NICE work, if you can get it
One track of the NICE conference was dedicated to presentations and discussions about increasing diversity in STEM education, particularly with regards to exposure to cybersecurity careers. This felt particularly timely given the recent report by Raytheon and NCSA, which found that the majority both male and female students are not being exposed to the possibility of jobs in this industry.
Among the findings, the creators of the report discovered that in the US, 67 percent of men and 77 percent of women said no high school teacher or career counselor had ever mentioned the idea of a cybersecurity career. Globally, the picture was not much better: 62 percent of men and 75 percent of women said no secondary or high school computer classes offered the skills to help them pursue a career in cybersecurity. Likewise, 52 percent of young women and 39 percent of young men said they felt no cybersecurity programs or activities were available to them. Given the growing shortage of qualified security personnel, these numbers are particularly alarming.
However, after listening to several presentations over the course of the conference, I’m encouraged by both the quantity and quality of options that are indeed available. The following list has something for everyone interested in helping to improve the visibility of cybersecurity careers. Whether you’re a teacher, mentor, student, or someone who wishes to donate time, money or other resources, there are plenty of ways to help.
Expanding access to computer science, and increasing participation by women and underrepresented students of color.
Provides summer cybersecurity camp for students and teachers at the K-12 level to help students understand safe online behavior, while increasing diversity and interest in cybersecurity careers.
Empowering girls of color between the ages of seven and 17 to become innovators in STEM fields through exposure to computer science and technology.
National Center for Women in Information Technology is working to increase women’s participation in information technology.
A long-term community for female technologists, from K-12 through higher education and beyond.
A collaborative project of NCWIT and Televisa Foundation designed to raise awareness among young Latinas and their families about opportunities and careers in technology.
Working to educate, inspire and equip high school girls with the skills and resources to pursue opportunities in computing fields.
Inspiring girls to try coding through introductory projects and resources; and to sustain their interest by creating a community around girls and coding.
Teaching kids how to code, as they create games and animated projects.
A global network of free computer programming clubs for young people.
An online community where kids can create and share interactive stories, games.
An online interactive platform that offers free coding classes in nine different programming languages.
An online resource providing a few simple things you can do to find and hire more qualified women in tech.
The Executive Women’s Forum mission is to attract, retain and advance women in the information security industry through education, leadership development and the creation of trusted relationships.
Creating access, awareness and opportunities for top Black and Latino/a engineering talent.
A community for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer coders and allies.
The world’s largest network of local groups.
GitHub is a web-based Git repository hosting service and collaboration site.
Author Lysa Myers, ESET