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Improving the Status of Women in Cybersecurity


Shouldn’t the technology which touches all of our lives include perspectives across the gender spectrum? Wouldn’t we collectively benefit from a wider range of life experiences brought to bear on the development of IT and cybersecurity?

While most people would probably answer an unequivocal “yes” to these questions, the reality in cybersecurity and IT is quite the opposite. In fact, a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau finds the number of women in IT peaked in 1990 and has fallen ever since. Interestingly, the situation in the privacy field is more balanced. Within the privacy field, the gender split is nearly perfect, and the number of female chief privacy officers outnumber the male. Given that privacy and security is a team effort, what’s driving the disparity in cybersecurity, and how can we all work to remedy the situation?

Balancing the Gender Scales in Cybersecurity

Male dominance in tech is widely acknowledged, but the situation in cybersecurity is even more skewed. Betsy Cooper, in her article “Cracking the cybersecurity gender code” for the Christian Science Monitor, makes a compelling case for why the field lacks a greater representation of women and suggests pathways towards balancing the scales.

Unlike the privacy field, which draws on more gender-balanced fields such as law, policy, and human resource management, cybersecurity is driven by fields with historically male-dominated pipelines such as computer science and national security, according to Cooper. This, in addition to the less-flexible schedules of cybersecurity jobs, tends to have a negative impact on the ability to draw women into the field. It also doesn’t help that branding in cybersecurity also carries with it messages of machismo, effectively creating culture barriers which deter women as well.

Cooper suggests addressing the pipeline is a major factor for remedying the problem. Looking into law, psychology, and public policy instead of “bro-centric” fields is a must. But we can also address the problem earlier in the curve. Education and mentorship is a big part of the picture. There’s evidence the right environment can work, and the gender gap can be closed.

From the Minority to the Majority

If the pipeline is part of the problem, why not start with the source? That’s the premise Harvey Mudd College began with when they set out to tackle the gender bias problem in IT. The school made a concerted effort to fix the problem and now more than half of its computer-science majors are women. Where roughly 16% of undergraduate computer-science majors are women nationally, at Harvey Mudd that number is up to 55%. The approach is systemic: Women are given leadership positions in departments, the school prizes teaching over research, and the classroom models are such that safe spaces are created for students—often female—whose voices, concerns, and questions are eclipsed by students more likely to assert themselves.

So far, the model works. Not only do more women continue on the computer-science track, but more of those who graduate have found positions in tech—up to 64% this year from 30% in 2011.

Resources to Support Diversity in Cybersecurity

Even if you’re not in the business of hiring cybersecurity team members or educating computer-science majors, you can expand your awareness of professional cybersecurity diversity and make your own contribution the cause. As it is with privacy professionals, we all have a part to play in the movement. Mentorship can be a big part of recruiting women into IT and cybersecurity positions. If you’re in the field, look beyond the common pool and nurture talent wherever you see it. Network with Women Leading Privacy and Women in Security and Privacy. Connect others with tech recruiting services for women like Women 2.0’s newest project. Promote and attend conferences like the Women in Cybersecurity conference. When writing an article or planning a conference make sure to reach out to female technology experts.

Diversity isn’t just good for business—it’s good for security and privacy. We can’t afford to overlook a rich source of talented problem solvers and innovative minds because of obsolete gender roles. It’s time to champion women in cybersecurity.

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