Getting young girls interested in cybersecurity remains hard, says Twitter’s VP and CISO

When Rinki Sethi’s daughter was in junior high school in the U.S., she applied to get into a high-tech innovation class offered as an elective. She was turned down.

Curious, Sethi — now Twitter’s vice-president and CISO — found out from her daughter who did make it: 12 boys and nine girls.

Arguably, that fits the stereotype that technology is largely for males.

“There are so many challenges still with getting girls interested in technology and cybersecurity,” Sethi said Monday as she recounted the incident for an International Women’s Day event sponsored by YL Ventures, an American-Israel venture capital firm. “That’s a problem we need to solve.”

Junior high, she argued, is when girls start to form their interests in things that may lead to careers. “‘We’ve got to fix the problem at that level.”

Panel members clockwise from far-right: Rinki Sethi, Liat Hayun, Moran Ashkenazi, Edna Conway and moderator Naama Ben Dov

Women account for roughly 20 per cent of cybersecurity professionals, depending on the survey and country, she said. “We need more women to enter this field. That’s what I see is the biggest problem: How do we get more [young] women interested?”

She argued that many women — and men — need to do more to inspire the next generation of women. If not, there will only be an incremental change in diversity in information technology.

Several panellists echoed the theme.

Edna Conway, VP and chief security and risk officer for Microsoft Azure, said grooming has to start before junior high.

“I spend my time with eight and 10 year-olds because I think we need to get to them early — you need to get them before hormones kick in, quite frankly.”

Look for and encourage signs of interest, she urged parents. “If it’s in your blood, it’s in your blood. If you see a young girl playing with an Erector Set, you should think, ‘There’s a mechanical engineer in the making.'”

But Conway also said that the cybersecurity sector has to be more broadminded generally and address its gender bias.

“I also think we have an obligation to open our minds to the existing members of the workforce who are sociologists, economics experts, actuaries – folks who can think about risk, who have different talents, and bring them in. Because we will not meet our [staffing] needs today if we do not take today’s workforce … and embrace the capabilities they have.”

Perhaps, she suggested, IT departments should bring back the concept of “juried craftspeople” when apprentices were taken in by a craftsperson and not a tutor.

Conway is an example of that kind of diversity: Her undergraduate degree was in medieval and renaissance literature, after which she went to law school. Now, a CSRO, she can talk about qubits.

“Guess what, we can learn,” she concluded.

Moran Ashkenazi, VP of security engineering and CISO at Tel Aviv-based Jfrog, a software development management platform, said women are in a better place now in IT. “I started 22 years when I used to be the only woman in the room. Now there are a couple of women in the room.”

In fact, she added, Jfrog has a large number of women executives. Seeing more women in leadership roles is “a joy and privilege.”

Be patient, be sensitive, understand how hard it is to be a woman in the industry, she told attendees, and try to make sure there’s a diverse workplace.

Unfortunately, said Liat Hayun, Tel Aviv-based VP of product management at Palo Alto Networks, women often take a step back in their careers to be with their children, which means it’s harder to get promoted, which means they end up earning less money than men. So, she argued, the more diverse and flexible the workforce is the better for all. “Equality leads to more equality,” she said.

There are three things to be done, said Conway:

  • Individuals should teach young women about technology. It can be during something like a neighbourhood event. “It doesn’t have to be a big corporate event. All of us can do one thing at a time.”
  • Sponsor someone. That’s more than being a mentor.
  • Accept candidates with diverse work and education backgrounds. Ultimately, she said, the IT community needs to reflect the mosaic of capabilities in the world.

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@]

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