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Closing the Gender Gap in Cybersecurity One Student at a Time

Posted by Liz Schulte on 3/11/19 5:30 AM
Topics: data security, cybersecurity

Cybersecurity is one of the fastest growing fields. However, women are underrepresented in the job market, the degree programs and the classrooms. As the demand for more diverse cybersecurity professionals grows, initiatives like Dakota State University’s CybHER program become increasingly vital to encourage more young women to bring their diverse perspective into the field of cybersecurity.

Closing the Gender Gap in CybersecurityDr. Pam Rowland, assistant professor at Dakota State University in Cyber Security, co-director of the Center of Excellence for Information Systems and the director of the CybHER Institute, didn’t take the typical path to her career. She received an undergraduate degree in commercial economics and worked in that field until she started her family.

“In my late 30s, I pursued a master’s in Information Systems. I started working at Dakota State in the College of Computing. When my kids got a little bit older, I went back and got my doctoral degree, and now I am an assistant professor in cybersecurity in my early 50s,” Rowland said. “My story is that I seek opportunities to continue to learn. My past isn’t as traditional as some, but it worked for me.”

Rowland has become a leading voice in the field of cybersecurity and has done a lot to help close the gender gap in the field. Noticing how few women were in her classrooms and the graduation lines, she began a conversation with a colleague, Dr. Ashley Podhradsky, about the gender disparity in cybersecurity.

“In 2013, it wasn’t as prevalent in the news as it has been in the last couple years. We started to do our own research as to why fewer women were in our field. We found that in cybersecurity, in particular, less than 10 percent of the workforce were women,” Rowland said. “So, we asked, what can we do about that.”

Cybersecurity is a fast-growing field with ample opportunity. In fact, predictions estimate that there will be more than 3.5 million cybersecurity job openings by 2021. So, why weren’t more women pursuing this field of study? Rowland began her research into why more women weren’t entering this promising career and how she could help improve outreach.

“Our nation needs security workers in order to continue to grow and be secure. We examined the need for more cybersecurity professionals and how we could help fill that need. As we started to explore the reasons why there were so few women, it really came down to the fact that girls didn’t know about the opportunity at a young enough age,” Rowland said. “We find middle school is a key age for when girls start to lean toward what they might do in the future and many girls that age aren’t aware of this as an option.”

According to a Raytheon study, 26 percent of female high school students have met or known someone studying cybersecurity. Whereas, 46 percent of male high school students know a person in the field.

“Dr. Podhradsky and I started the CybHER program to educate and encourage girls to explore cybersecurity, “ Rowland said. “Through CybHER, we have reached over 10,000 girls and women. We introduce them to cybersecurity concepts through coding or cryptography or social engineering  exercises. Really, we just want to open the field up as an option for young girls.”

CybHER’s mission is to empower, motivate, educate, and change the perception of girls and women in cybersecurity. Among the many things the institute does, it seeks to increase knowledge of cybersecurity in a K–12 setting, mentor female college students and create a professional network for women in cybersecurity within the state of South Dakota.  The CybHER Institute also holds a CybHER Security Camp, which is supported by the NSA, and is the largest girls-only residential camp in the country.

“The number of women at DSU has grown over 300 percent from 2013-2018. And while we can’t take all the credit for that, it is pretty exciting,” Rowland said. “Through our program and outreach, we have really seen an impact.”

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