Despite demand, women comprise only 11 percent of cyber security workers
Ambareen Siraj looks out at the 75 students in her computer security class and often sees that she's the only woman in the room.
At most, one or two women sign up each semester for her information assurance and security course at Tennessee Tech University, but often no female does.
“It bothers me,” Siraj said. “In every other thing, we work side-by-side. Why not cybersecurity?”
Even in the male-dominated world of so-called STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — computer science and security careers stand out for having so few women. Females make up about half of the workforce and a quarter of STEM jobs, but they represent just 11 percent of cybersecurity workers.
That low percentage has remained stagnant despite growing demand for computer security workers, according to the Information System Security Certification Consortium, a Clearwater, Fla., education nonprofit.
Frustrated about her classroom enrollment, Siraj applied to the National Science Foundation for a grant to host a Women in Cybersecurity conference for 100 people last year. She kept expanding the registration limit until the fire marshal cut her off at 350 people.
This year's event will start Friday in Atlanta. Facebook agreed to be the strategic partner with support from Google, IBM, Microsoft and Carnegie Mellon University among more than two dozen other backers. Siraj has received federal grants of $244,160 for the conferences, training and outreach programs. She set the registration limit at 500 people this year, and the event again sold out in weeks.
“Building a pipeline is so important, but what's even more important is building a diverse pipeline,” said Jennifer Henley, Facebook's director of security operations, who will speak at the event.
Henley said the public focuses too often on negative images of hackers and neglects to see the many professionals — men and women — working to keep online communications safe.
“What we're missing is the people who go into this field, who are driven by the desire to protect people, to protect their information, to protect their livelihoods, in some cases to protect people's lives by keeping them safe online,” Henley said.
Educators have shifted to engaging girls while they're in middle school, showing them that there are successful women in scientific fields and then giving them a support network of mentors. It's a critical age for young women to develop interests or get discouraged, said Linda Ortenzo, director of STEM programs for the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh.
“Girls get very subtle messages early on ... that there are certain fields and certain endeavors that are ‘boy things,' ” Ortenzo said. “It's astonishing that in 2015, we're still talking about some of these things, but it's true. (Girls) are as interested and as capable — when they are given those opportunities and supported — as boys.”
Carnegie Science Center runs an after-school program with 211 middle school girls, mainly at Pittsburgh public schools. The program encourages girls to engage in relevant scientific experiments and introduces them to women in the computer field, said Nina Barbuto, program manager of the science center's STEM Girls program. A girl connected with a visiting engineer when they talked about a popular dance called the “Nae Nae.”
“We bring in different mentors or role models to talk to the girls,” Barbuto said. “The girls see themselves. They see a point of relation with a woman.”
Connecting with mentors starting in seventh grade is what convinced Natalie Nash that she wanted to work with computers. The Shaler native got involved early with the Carnegie Science Center's Pittsburgh Regional Science & Engineering Fair and found adults who could give her advice and direction.
“Being able to share my research with an adult who has experience and who has been in the field for years, and to be able to talk it out with them was something that what was really great for me,” said Nash, 20, a junior computer engineering major at Penn State University.
CMU's School of Computer Science offers Creative Technology Nights for middle school girls, run by women studying computer science. The group meets on Monday nights and often draws more than 40 girls to learn about robots, code-breaking and other computer-related fields, said Carol Frieze, director of Women@SCS, a support program in the school.
“Our students realized that a lot of girls were missing out and weren't being exposed to computing skills and science technology,” Frieze said. “If we can give them the opportunity, we have found that they love to discover and learn about computer science.”
Other programs for girls and women have grown up across the country. The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, held each fall, claims to be the largest gathering of female technologists.
A group, the Expanding Your Horizons Network, grew out of work by women such as Lenore Blum, a CMU computer science professor, in San Francisco in the 1970s. It hosts 80 conferences a year for girls interested in science.
College, career support
The gender gap in computer science fields might be most visible in undergraduate education, where women represent 14 percent of computer science graduates at colleges across North America, according to the Computing Research Association, a Washington nonprofit.
CMU has worked to encourage and support women through its Women@SCS program while fighting stereotypes of computer workers as men in black T-shirts and hoodies with images of women in sneakers and yes, high heels.
The program provides peer support, mentors, leadership opportunities and social events. It has become so popular that the school started a parallel program that includes men.
“Women are not just part of the culture, but they shape the culture,” Frieze said. “We don't believe that you need to change the curriculum. That's kind of insulting. Women can do well in the curriculum, but they do need to have an environment in which they can be part of it, just like the guys.”
Rachel Holladay, a second-year computer science major at CMU, said she feels more connected with women in college than she did in high school, where she often was the only girl in technology groups. The women at CMU use their group to talk about ways of dealing with sexism while leaning on one another for support, she said.
“If you ever have a scenario where you want to talk to another girl or feel connected, there's this built-in support system that's always there,” said Holladay, 19, of Slidell, La.
A Virginia nonprofit called Women in Technology started a Cyber Security Special Interest Group in November for women in the field. Loren Friedel, a lawyer and fellow at The Cyber Security Forum Initiative, agreed to conduct outreach based on her experiences of working in male-dominated fields as a stockbroker and then in the military.
“With time and experience, I personally decided that I could continue to pursue my interests — male-dominated or not — or I could give up,” Friedel said. “Giving up was not an option for me.”
More than 20 percent of the 6,757 applicants to CMU's School of Computer Science this fall are women. The school will accept about 350 people with a goal of hosting an incoming class of about 140 students.
Women accounted for 40 percent of CMU's incoming freshman-class students last fall. But the school does not give them special treatment in the admissions process, Michael Steidel, the director of admissions, said through a spokesman.
“The top women are just as good as the top men,” Steidel said. “We're just lucky to have so many to choose from.”
Siraj, founder of the Women in Cybersecurity conference, wants to get more women into the room. When she organized the event last year, she discovered a support community and found herself surrounded by female computer scientists.
“That was exciting, inspiring, motivating,” she said. “There are so many opportunities out there, but the key is knowing where they are and how to get them.”
Andrew Conte is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7835 or firstname.lastname@example.org.