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How Universities Can Bridge Cybersecurity's Gender Gap

It's time to invest in initiatives that engage young women in cybersecurity early and often.

4 Min Read
a crowd of students on graduation day.
Source: Lawrence Sawyer via iStock

The United States faces a tremendous shortage of cybersecurity professionals, with more than 750,000 open cybersecurity roles nationwide. According to an (ISC)2 report, women made up only about 24% of the global cybersecurity workforce in 2018.

If the cybersecurity sector doesn't start attracting more female professionals, it will never have the strength or numbers to counter the growing threats facing America. Cyberattacks are more prevalent and dangerous than ever before, posing threats like identity theft, financial fraud, corporate espionage, and state-sponsored cyberattacks, which will continue to increase in severity in the absence of a skilled cybersecurity workforce. While the Biden administration's National Cybersecurity Strategy provides a road map for addressing the gender gap and workforce shortage in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), as well as cybersecurity, there is more to be done. That's where universities come in.

Educational institutions have a crucial role to play in building the next generation of female cybersecurity talent and bolstering the workforce. There are several strategies universities can deploy to support women interested in entering one of the world's most important professions.

Empower Girls to Pursue Cybersecurity as Early as Middle School

For starters, universities can start appealing to female students earlier in their academic lives — as early as middle school — to pursue degrees and careers in cybersecurity. Historically, as girls enter middle school, their interest in STEM begins to decline, and most girls have already decided by the time they reach high school if a career in STEM is right for them. There also needs to be a shift in emphasis from "Do you like math and science?" to "Do you like technology, are you curious, and do you want a high-paying job?" in helping students explore new interests.

Framing those conversations in a more friendly way can help students who may not have considered a career in cybersecurity — or even know what it is — to see themselves in the industry.

Foster Peer Mentorship Programs

Universities can create mentorship programs, pairing the next generation of cyber leaders pursuing higher education and careers in the field with local middle and high school students. The peer mentorship model has been incredibly successful in inspiring and motivating young women and girls, increasing their confidence in their ability to pursue careers in the industry.

For example, IF/ THEN, a nonprofit focused on advancing women in STEM, has tapped high-profile STEM professionals across fields to serve as peer mentors to young women, initiating a cultural change in the industry.

Near-peer mentoring is a very effective strategy for supporting young women and other underrepresented groups in cybersecurity. Students can build meaningful relationships with individuals who are only a few years older and are achieving success in the field. If she can see it, she can be it.

Leverage Experiential Learning

Cybersecurity educators across the country also need to change their approach to promoting the field if they want students to develop an interest at younger ages. Experiential learning is critical to helping girls and other underrepresented groups understand the field and, more importantly, that they can contribute to it as a professional. A class on the merits of dual-factor authentication might put middle schoolers to sleep, but a class on cracking passwords would show them why it matters and how it applies to the real world.

Palo Alto Networks, a leading cybersecurity company, recently partnered with the Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) to launch the first-ever national security badge program, which provides elementary, middle school, and high school girls with STEM activities to increase their cybersecurity skills and encourage them to pursue careers in the field.

Another national initiative that has been successful in increasing cybersecurity interest among K–12 students is GenCyber, which provides free summer cybersecurity camps for students and professional development opportunities for teachers nationwide. Funded by the National Security Agency (NSA) and National Science Foundation (NSF), these camps offer activities and competitions in everything from cryptography to network security to help all ages improve their cybersecurity fundamentals.

By prioritizing diversity and inclusion and supporting outreach programs, universities can build a pipeline of talent that will provide the professionals needed for an adaptive and responsive cybersecurity workforce. If Americans want to get serious about protecting ourselves, businesses, organizations, and our government, it's time to invest in initiatives that engage our young women in cybersecurity early and often.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Ashley Podhradsky

Vice President for Research and Economic Development, Dakota State University

Dr. Ashley Podhradsky is the Vice President for Research and Economic Development at Dakota State University (DSU) and is a member of the First Bank and Trust Board of Directors. In addition to her academic and professional work, she has a strong passion for increasing gender diversity in cybersecurity. She is the co-founder of CybHER®, a cybersecurity outreach program that has reached thousands of people from K-12 to college age and beyond. For more information about Ashley, click here.

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