A small college in Claremont, CA may have finally found the formula to start attracting more women into Cybersecurity careers. 

Women may be a key factor to bridging the gap in the cybersecurity field where there is such a severe labor shortage. There are one million cybersecurity job openings in 2016. More than 209,000 cybersecurity jobs in the U.S. are unfilled, and postings are up 74% over the past five years, according to a 2015 analysis of numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics by Peninsula Press, a project of the Stanford University Journalism Program.  

Michael Brown, the CEO of the world’s largest security software vendor, Symantec, claims the demand for cybersecurity talent is expected to rise to 6 million globally by 2019, with a projected shortfall of 1.5 million.

Today, only 11% of cybersecurity positions are filled by women, according to the Women’s Society of Cyberjutsu (WSC) which is a non-profit that empowers women to succeed in the Cybersecurity field,  This is in stark contrast with most other professional fields where women make up almost 50% or sometimes more of the workforce.

Across the nation, women only make up less than 16% of all graduating computer science majors and less than 12% of graduating computer engineering majors according to the Computing Research Association

Not so at Harvey Mudd, where they have cracked the code to attract women into computer science degrees. More than half — 55% — of the latest class of computer science graduates were women, compared with roughly 10 percent a decade ago.

In fact, programming is becoming so popular at Harvey Mudd which is a part of Claremont Colleges, that its professors are campus celebrities and incoming freshmen are excited for classes before ever setting foot on campus.

 The professors at Harvey Mudd College may have found the right formula.

Using student feedback, observations from class and a bit of creative social psychology, professors identified three key reasons female students did not major in computer science:

  • They didn’t find it interesting,

  • They were intimidated by it the topic and the culture, and

  • It did not have social relevance.

Maria Klawe, Harvey Mudd’s president since 2006 and a computer scientist herself, used her influence in making the field more attractive to women which has been recognized by the White House’s chief technology officer.

Building confidence and a sense of belonging and a sense of community among these women makes such a huge difference,” she said. “Once you change the myths and the cultural beliefs about computer science, that has a lot of momentum.”

Here are some key changes the program made which helped attract women:

  • Instead of having computer science students write arcane code, professors started giving them fun group puzzles and 3-D graphics to create their own games.  They also used more language based projects such as writing algorithms that can recognize lines of Shakespeare, generating new text with similar sentence patterns and designing facial recognition programs.

  • Women, more often, want to know they are contributing to a bigger, worldly purpose, whereas, most males were focused on personal projects.  Therefore, the curriculum was tuned to focus more on solving real world problems such as using algorithms to solve evolution questions, to analyze DNA sequences and to focus on disease research opportunities.  

  • More collaboration projects were introduced to take advantage of women’s strength in solving complex problems in teams.  They revamped homework assignments to bring groups of students together to solve problems.

  • Professors found ways to remove the so-called macho effect by which more-experienced students — usually male — intimidated others by answering all the questions. They pulled those students aside privately and asked them to let others speak.

  • The department customized the curriculum to align with each person prior experience, so that those who knew nothing were learning together at a comfortable pace — as were those who knew a lot.  

  • The college also purposely sought out and hired more female professors to attract more female students into the program.

While the classroom and a cybersecurity team may differ in many ways, applying some of these same techniques may open up the door to many women who would have not previously considered the security field as a career opportunity.  Here are some tips which may be helpful:

  1. Create a fun work environment:  Life is too short to be stressed out all the time. Celebrate the successes whether it is finding a potential threat or going a month without an incident. Liven up meetings with appropriate humor.  Create events to bring your team together such as sponsoring local meetups or getting the team to participate in ‘capture the flag’ contests.

  2. Leverage Collaboration & Social Skills:  Create opportunities to build a stronger social community within your group by solving complex problems in teams

  3. Social Relevance: Help your team understand the greater purpose of protecting the company’s intellectual property, infrastructure and communications.  Attend InfraGard meetings as a team to see how keeping threats out can contribute to our National security.  

  4. Reduce Intimidation:  Create a work environment where the less technical are not intimidated by the “know-it-alls.”  Enlist those team members to help elevate the knowledge of the less technical to elevate the capability of the entire team.

  5. Personalized Training:  Evaluate each individuals strengths and weaknesses and customize a training program for them.  Whether it is formal outside training or pairing them up with a coworker, choose a path to ensure they are learning at an appropriate pace without intimidation.  

  6. Women Leadership:  Purposely seek out female security leaders.  Installing a women leader will naturally raise the level of confidence and comfort across the team for other women to join in. 

Changing the negative stereotypes in cybersecurity may take some time, but with purposeful effort, women can be attracted into security careers.  This can help fill the employment gap and lead to greater opportunities and stronger teams by leveraging their strengths.

Author:

Tim Howard is the founder of Fortify Experts (top ranked Cybersecurity Search firm by Cybersecurity Ventures) which helps companies find exceptional cybersecurity talent through executive search, permanent placement and project consultants.  Howard has been leading technology staffing teams for over 15 years and is the founder of three other technology and staffing firms.  He has degrees from Texas A&M University in Industrial Distribution and Marketing.  

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