Why So Few Women in Cybersecurity?

I’ve seen quite a few articles lately on why there aren’t more women in cybersecurity. It’s a good question, but I think to answer that, we have to look at tech in general.

First, let’s step back and acknowledge the progress that has been made. Today’s average tech company looks nothing like it did in the 1980s when I was earning a bachelor’s degree in computer science and then later a master’s degree in business. At that time, women working in any roles in technology were a minority.

Today, that’s improved in a number of areas within tech including marketing, public relations, program and product management, HR, sales and finance. Where women remain dramatically underrepresented is in engineering and IT – the areas that require degrees in computer science, engineering or software design. To identify the problem there, we only have to look at this chart:

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According to the NY Times in 2014, “Only 18 percent of computer science graduates in the United States are women, down from 37 percent in 1985.”

That 50% decline over the last 30 years was shocking to me and frankly disappointing. I had clearly taken my eye off the ball and just assumed that the trend was on an incline. What initially drew me to computer science was not any particular gift in math or science but my fascination with games, puzzles and riddles that arose in my childhood. For me, computer science was just another game. I found working through logic in dozens of different ways amusing and challenging at the same time. I found out later the need to strengthen my math and science skills but I was hooked by that time. I’m sure many girls out there today share those same interests, and it’s clear we’re not making enough of an effort to introduce them to computer science. And that’s too bad.

My CS degree gave me core knowledge that has followed me throughout my career and been useful in so many ways. Just the ability to think in a clear, linear, logical way has benefitted me significantly. And not only that — it has also opened many doors as I moved from roles in product management to marketing, with a few stops in between.

What’s important for women in high school and college to know is that tech companies roll out the red carpet for CS degrees no matter the role. Whether you’re looking for a career in marketing, business development, product management, communications or any other discipline, tech companies want to hire employees that truly understand their products. That means CS majors have an advantage.

The good news is that some universities have figured out how to buck the trend. At the University of Washington, for example, women earned 30% of all the CS degrees awarded in 2014. The university attributes its success to a few key activities, the most important of which (to me) are:

  • Outreach to K-12
  • Building a community

Several years ago, the university started offering workshops to introduce girls to computing as well as workshops designed to help teachers integrate computer science ideas into their classes. These STEM programs (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are the way to go. We’ve got to reach out to those young women whose minds are stimulated by the same puzzles, games and exercises in logic that attracted me to the field.

And once they’ve made the commitment, we’ve got to support the clubs or chapters of national organizations designed to provide a supportive community for women studying computer science.

So, let’s assume your company believes in hiring more women — not to fill a mandate or to look politically correct — but because you know that a more diverse work environment is a breeding ground for innovation and creativity. There are several ways for tech companies (including cybersecurity-focused tech companies) to make a difference. And just a little effort can go a long way.

Looking at the trends, it’s clear we’ve dropped the ball, and I’m not without blame, either. But now it’s time for more tech companies to come together, get involved and reverse the trend. It’s just good business.