SAN FRANCISCO — Women have been under-represented in IT for years, and even more so in the field of cyber security.

The way to change that is by getting the attention of girls in junior high/middle school, infosec pros were told last week at an RSA Conference session.

“Girls are great at science, technology and math, they’re excited about it all the way through middle school and then they re-direct away from technology and into other things once they get to high school,” said Mandy Galante, a SANS Institute consultant who is also a high school teacher.

“That’s a big barrier, a barrier that’s directly in front of the on-ramp for a pathway to cyber security.

“We have to open up their minds and get them excited and thinking that cyber security is for them … by middle school.”

Michelle Guel, left and Mandy Galante spoke on encouraging women to have cyber careers. Howard Solomon photo

There are successes, such as young women like Emily, Galante said, a U.S. high school student whose dream was to open a ballet school in Paris. Then one day a guy she knew encouraged her to participate in the school computer club’s capture the flag contest. Why? Because, he said, the contest is like a mystery, and he knew Emily liked crime shows.

Emily and her team won first prize, which included a scholarship to a university engineering course.

The problem, Galante admitted, this isn’t a typical way girls get into computer science. In the industry lingo, this example doesn’t scale.

What will draw bigger numbers of girls are a range of methods, including increasing the number of teachers who lead computer courses. Galante noted they now have resources available at code.org.

Other ways include encouraging girls to join school computer clubs, attend free “Gen Cyber” summer camps common in the U.S., join the Girls Who Code group summer camps and participate in the U.S. Cyber Patriot school competition.

In Canada comparable programs are offered by the Information and Communications Technology Council (ITCT). The Canadian version of the Cyber Patriot is called Cyber Titan. A partial list shows Cyber Titan has teams from schools in Toronto, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Kelowna, B.C. Richmond, B.C., Fredericton, Miramichi, N.B., Moncton, N.B., and Saint John, N.B.

This year the Cyber Titan national final competition will be held in May in Ottawa.

ICTC also sponsors cyber days, where students hear from industry experts about cyber security in Canada, and the Focus on IT (FIT) for students in grades 10, 11 and 12 at over 200 secondary schools. Despite these programs there isn’t enough here to encourage girls, David Pierce, a director of Ottawa’s Willis College, said in an interview. The college offers several cyber security courses. Pierce is also involved in a study for the defence department on why more women aren’t involved in cyber defence.

Willis College CEO Rima Aristocrat — a member of Canada’s CSO Hall of Fame — said “nothing will be resolved until government, industry and skills trainers get together to solve the problem.”

However, she did note that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke in support of getting more women into cyber security and defence careers last week at a round table hosted by the college.

There’s another way the U.S. is more aggressive than Canada: Galante said 27 U.S. governors are backing a cyber security competition only for girls called Girls Go CyberStart. No comparable program exists here.

Just as important as these initiatives, Galante said, is the need to increase the number of computer science teachers in schools. The can find resources for curriculum and after-school activities at code.org.

Finally, she encouraged women who are infosec pros to speak to girls. “If you can tell them stories – go to a summer camp or a school — and tell them what happens when something goes wrong in cyber security …what happens to a hospital when gets hit with ransomware; a couple that can’t get a mortgage because credit was wrecked by identity theft … This will resonate with a young girl.”

With Galante at the RSA session was Michelle Guel, chief security architect at Cisco Systems, who spoke on the need to support young women not only who have enrolled in computer science college or university courses but also when they move into the workforce. Guel co-founded the Cisco Women in Cybersecurity community.

She encouraged infosec pros to speak to campus computer clubs, mentor women at work, encourage women in IT to move into cyber security, and make sure those women in cyber security know about opportunities to advance their careers in organizations.

Addressing infosec pros who are men she said, “We need you involved.”

By the way, remember Emily, the high school student who on a whim entered a capture the flag competition? Galante said she now works in the digital investigations unit at a New York investment bank.



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