Female network will deter cybersecurity threats

Promoting cybersecurity careers and connecting with students will help boost women’s participation in the industry.

By Mariah Kenny.  Source: USNews.com

WHILE ADA LOVELACE IS credited with developing the world’s first computer programming concepts back in 1842, I had never heard about her, let alone the cybersecurity field, until I entered college nearly two centuries later.

And nearly two centuries later, in a field pioneered by a woman, very few women can be found.

Without women to pave the way for other women, the cybersecurity industry will continue to suffer from a limited talent pool. Women are less likely to have role models and mentors in STEM-related fields who embody the career opportunities available to them, and who can also show them how to realize those opportunities.

Globally, only 26 percent of women have met or known someone studying cybersecurity at the high school, university or even graduate level, according to a Raytheon study. By comparison, 46 percent of men surveyed have known someone studying in that field.

And when you consider that cyberattacks threaten the very foundation on which our livelihoods depend, particularly for my digital-native generation, the question becomes: “Why aren’t more women donning the white hat of cybersecurity?”

The answer lies in the network.

Sheryl Sandberg has noted that there simply aren’t enough senior-level women across industries to mentor younger women, which may explain why nearly 1 in 5 women has never had a mentor. Without role models at the educational and professional levels, women will forgo careers in cybersecurity. Networking and mentorship are the key to closing the cybersecurity skills gap and the gender gap.

Women are thought to be stronger communicators than men, but we often choose to apply these skills in more traditional fields, such as education, and overlook others. In fact, a new study in the journal Psychological Science found that women may be less likely to pursue careers in science and math because they identify more career choices in other fields, not because they have less ability in engineering or computer science.

This revelation uncovers the real problem in cybersecurity and STEM-related fields: The female talent gap is not caused from lack of skill or exposure to math and science, but from lack of networking and effective marketing for these career opportunities in STEM. As an example, cybersecurity is associated with images of an isolated male hacker wearing a hoodie. In reality, it’s an industry that requires ongoing communication and team-based problem-solving, which I discovered in practice.

This year I served as captain for the first University of Virginia team to compete at the National Collegiate Cybersecurity Defense Competition. During the competition, more than 235 teams of college students from across the country tested their cybersecurity capabilities in real-world business scenarios while industry professionals launched attacks against their networks.

I wasn’t surprised to find myself as one of the only women both in the competition at large and in the finals, as I was the only woman on my eight-person team. I was surprised, however, that we won the national competition – defeating a three-time champion team from the University of Central Florida– and that we did so without superior technical skills. We won with strong communication and creative problem-solving.

Those skills, as well as technical acumen, are skills many women have and want to apply in their careers. But to raise awareness about these job qualifications and job openings, and to foster mentorship within the industry and academia, more men and women need to connect with students to promote cybersecurity careers and share their positive experiences in this field of work.

Networking led me to where I am today in pursuit of computer science education and a cybersecurity career. During a high school visitation, I met with ambassadors from the Society of Women Engineers at UVA, where about 28 percent of students studying computing are women, compared with the national average of 18 percent. I toured and heard directly from future female engineers about the exciting possible opportunities in their field of study. And by joining the Computer and Network Security Club, I was introduced to the cybersecurity defense competition and learned about cybersecurity jobs.

The “network” – where cybersecurity lives and breathes – will be the most powerful influencer in our digital lives. To ensure we have a secure infrastructure for our digital way of life, we must grow a strong cybersecurity force of women through old-school networking. With this in mind, I implore industry professionals and computer science enthusiasts to become mentors and seek out curious young female minds.

Mariah Kenny is a third-year University of Virginia computer science student.