Cybersecurity: an open playing field for women

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Cybersecurity specialists are in high demand following major breaches on national and local levels, and BYU is working to prepare women to fill vacancies in the field. 

Last year, Forbes reported nearly one million global cybersecurity jobs were left unfilled, with demand expected to grow to six million by 2020. In this period, the cybersecurity market is expected to rise to $170 billion in worth.

“You watch a movie like ‘Hidden Figures’ — women started out in computer science and founded this career path before it was profitable,” said BYU associate professor of information technology Dale Rowe.

Only about 10 percent of all cybersecurity positions globally are filled by women, according to Rowe. Many organizations, including BYU’s Cybersecurity Research Lab, work to encourage women to take advantage of these open jobs, which often benefit from an increase in diversity.

“If you look into Seattle, what some of the big tech companies are doing … You can see really great benefits women bring to technology and to how they approach problem-solving,” said Jessica Smith, a BYU student and press manager for BYU’s Cybersecurity Research Lab. “That way there are two different perspectives (between men and women), both of which are extremely valuable.”

BYU holds a girls-only cybersecurity summer camp every July. Women hold only 10 percent of cybersecurity positions globally, according to information technology professor Dale Rowe. (Cybersecurity Research Lab)

Rowe said the Cybersecurity Research Lab has seen great results with mixed-gender teams.

He also said high school students interested in cybersecurity and information technologies are often funneled into computer science programs, which could limit their enjoyment or effectiveness in the field later in life.

“(Computer science) programs are great for students who want to go into software development or graphics research, but for those who want to be security analysts or system administrators or web developers, it’s a very different field,” Rowe said. “We get a lot of transfers (into information technology) who love computing.”

Rowe recommends students pay careful attention to the computing track they identify best with and enroll in those courses early.

Regardless of qualifications, it’s important to gain experience by applying for IT jobs, scholarships and programs, Rowe said.

“What a lot of people don’t realize (is a job description) is often a recruiter’s wish list, but women read them and (feel unqualified), and don’t apply,” Smith said.

Rowe recommends students apply for any internship or scholarship opportunities they find since these applications can often lead to an on-campus job, which can help them build contacts vital to post-graduation success.

“We’ve seen a lot of growth (in the past three years) — from 50 to 280 students enrolled,” Rowe said.

If potential or incoming students are on the fence about cybersecurity, Rowe recommends they visit the Crabtree Building, which houses BYU’s IT program.

“What I love here with the (cybersecurity) program, is how incredibly open and welcoming they are to everyone,” Smith said. “We emulate what we believe as a faith and a student body here.”

Rowe recommends anyone at BYU who might be interested in the cybersecurity program should schedule a tour of the facilities and “get a feel for the program, meet other students (and faculty) and start building networks.”

Cara Cornel is a BYU IT student, and a member of the Cybersecurity Research Lab. Cornel participates in cyber defense competitions and acts as a counselor in the summer camp. (Cariana Photography)

BYU student Cara Cornel, an information technologies student, said the lack of women in the cybersecurity program was intimidating, but recommends students interested in the program press forward and do their best.

“Have a proactive attitude about schoolwork and be bold. Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” Cornel said.

In the last two years, BYU’s Collegiate Cyber Defense Competitions team, led by Rowe, took first place in multiple regional, national and international cyber defense competitions, and stood apart as the most gender-balanced team in attendance.

“BYU is a leader in cybersecurity,” Smith said. “BYU’s Collegiate Cyber Defense Competitions team … two years ago was half women, half men. Nobody’s managed to do that before.”

The Collegiate Cyber Defense Competitions team is free for anyone to join, but requires $30 in annual dues to retain membership.

Cornel said she enjoyed working with her Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition teammates, especially when they “meshed and worked well together.”

BYU’s Girls’ Cybersecurity Summer Camp attendees participate in a practical starship experience. “Crewmembers” are tasked with fixing technical errors on the ship. (BYU Cybersecurity Research Lab)

The Cybersecurity Research Lab annually hosts a free cybersecurity summer camp for girls ages 13 to 18. The camp features activities like programming a Raspberry Pi computer, cracking simple password and participating in a cybersecurity starship experience.

While competing in these events can be fun, they can also help students develop critical skills essential to succeeding in cybersecurity, according to Rowe and Smith.

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