Local Tipping Point Influencers May Be Key to Increasing Female Representation in Cyber

 In Cyber/ICT, Local

When I am talking to prospective female students and their parents about our cybersecurity program, I often get the question, “Are there many other females in your program?” to which I stutter and stammer and reply, “It depends on what you mean by many.” It’s a question cybersecurity programs across the country stammer as they answer and that corporations, government agencies, and academia alike are trying to solve. The key to solving the crisis is often seen as ‘going big’ – but what if the real answer is to go small?

Less than 10% of our students are female, but it is not for lack of trying. Most other STEM degree programs have similar numbers. Cybersecurity programs around the country are not fulfilling their obligation to the profession when gender diversity is not present in their student body. An organization simply cannot reach its fully potential without a group of people with different thought processes, life experiences, and perspectives giving input. To understand how to fix the problem, we must know why it exists. This is where I get many different answers from many different intelligent critical thinkers. The following are representative samples of responses:

  • “Girls aren’t indoctrinated into STEM fields early on”
  • “Females are pushed away from those fields by well-meaning adults”
  • “Computer science and cybersecurity aren’t social enough for females”
  • “It is not something their friends do, so why should they?”
  • “There are few mentors in the field to advise them of opportunities”
  • “If a female is interested in STEM, they tend to lean towards the medical field”
  • “There are too many uninteresting prerequisites that defy logic”

Okay, the last one could apply to either gender.  It was females, all with some relationship to STEM, who gave every one of these answers to me. The questions were presented to educators, industry professionals and students. As I researched the issue online, I found many people had spent a lot of money to get the same results, in some form or fashion, as I did in my informal survey. I cannot say unequivocally that any of the answers are wrong. The clusters where female interest in cybersecurity and computing careers are relatively high are often due to grassroots efforts, which combine solutions to all of the above responses. This usually involves one or two very special individuals (such as teachers or mentors), who have a keen interest in the field of computing or cybersecurity and a wonderful way of sharing it. These individuals are mostly female, although enthusiasm, if real, does not discriminate against gender. They also maximize the resources in the public sector (competitions, clubs, and educational opportunities) for the benefit of their female students and understand how to tackle obstacles knowledgeably.

To put in Malcolm Gladwell terms, these few people have become the “tipping point” in their world. There are multiple clubs exclusive to females that involve both coding and true cybersecurity-based interest. But unless there is a respected guide vectoring and participating with them, even a plethora of clubs and resources won’t matter.

Instead of local influencers taking national or corporate direction on how to fix a widespread problem, maybe the reverse is true. Find the “tipping points” out there who have poured their heart and soul into directing and mentoring females into these career fields, and give them every resource available to create more.  Let them determine what will motivate young girls in their sphere of influence to pursue a cybersecurity path. If you are in a cybersecurity related field and are interested in helping, start with the local school districts and find out who that “tipping point” may be. Offer any help that is within your realm of possibility. The key to building diversity in the cybersecurity workforce may not be about adding of hundreds of new professionals to the ranks – it may be about going small, and building one professional at a time.

If you look around and you don’t see a “tipping point” – a cybersecurity professional actively working to build a diverse network and attract female candidates to the field – maybe that person should be you.

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