In our last article we explored some of the issues that seem to be holding some women back from entering the world of information security and tech in general. In this installment we will focus on ways to change that trend.
Just over 40 years ago when Dr. Laurel Steinherz, then a fellow in Pediatric Cardiology at Einstein Medical School sat in lecture hall, it was sparsely dotted with females. “The overwhelming majority of medical school students were men. Our program actually stood out because we were about 10% female. Most other medical school classes at the time had about 3-4 women for every 100 students. Medicine was thought of a man’s profession, and we were going against the grain” she says, looking back.
“When I wanted my daughter to have the same interest in medicine that I had, I taught her to suture her dolls and take their vitals. Medicine was the standard of what was cool and exciting in our home. I took her to conferences and introduced her to my female peers. When she was in eighth grade and told her teachers she was going to be a doctor at a time when all the other girls wanted to be nurses, her teachers would inevitably answer “no, no that’s not a profession for a nice girl like you.” She’d shoot them back a dead – ice stare and say “Then you’ve never met my mother” Today she is a successful pediatrician.”
And, the tables have turned -Thanks to hard work and a re-imaging of the medical field on the part of women like Dr. Steinherz and her fellow female pioneers, today about 48.6 percent of the medical school graduates are women.
So what can the tech industry learn from this, with the dismal rate of female CS grads and the dearth of females in technical roles in general?
Start ‘em young
From young ages both boys and girls exhibit an equal interest in science and math. “We adults may think very different things about boys and girls, and treat them accordingly, but when we measure their capacities, they’re remarkably alike,” said Elizabeth Spelke, a professor of psychology at Harvard. Dr Spelke and her colleagues research the basic spatial, quantitative and numerical abilities in kids from ages five months through seven years old. “You see a considerable number of the pieces of our mature capacities for spatial and numerical reasoning coming together…But while we always test for gender differences in our studies, we never find them”
Despite the lack of differences it’s right about that age of seven years old when the curiosity in logic and spatial concepts begins to wane in many girls, according to Debbie Sterling. Sterling is the creator of GoldieBlox, a building toy aimed at piquing girls interest in engineering. That’s about the same age when girls begin to notice the jewelry-making kits and the princess dolls screaming “buy me, buy me!” from toy store shelves. This is all happening at the same time as toys centered around logic building and puzzle solving are being aimed at boys.”The toys and games that young girls play with mold their educational and career interests; they create dreams of future careers” Andrea Guendelman, co-founder of Developher explains. No one is saying to leave Barbie high and dry – except for those, of course, who are saying “Buh-bye, Barbie” with pretty good reasons too, like the fact that playing with a doll that emphasizes looks can’t help but contribute to unhealthy ideas about the importance of physical beauty. And let’s not forget the Teen Talk Barbie PR disaster in the 1990’s when one of the phrases a talking Barbie could say was “Math is hard!”. Just what we want our impressionable girls to emulate, right? So perhaps the “Paradox Box” a puzzle/game aimed at encouraging “concentration, mental visualization, logic, and patience” or LittleBits, a building set which consists of kid-friendly magnetically connected circuit boards should be on your daughter’s next birthday wish-list too.
Give girls positive female role models
We make assumptions about the world based by-and-large through things we see in TV and movies. For every ten fictitious geeky lab-coat clad or code-cracking guys we are exposed to in the media, there is on average, one fed-up looking female colleague, silently sending out the message that she isn’t a nerd, like them. So young impressionable girls begin to associate tech and STEM fields with nerdy guys and a handful of women who have to suffer through the hybrid geeky/macho culture in which tech is bathed. What they should be seeing are all the strong women who have persevered just as their male counterparts have to make meaningful contributions to their profession. “ Time and again, I hear from women who chose their STEM career because they were inspired by a successful woman who proved it could be done.” says Suw Charman-Anderson, who started findingada.com which focuses on highlighting women in stem professions.
Having strong female role models should start early too. Lance Rougeux, director of the Discovery Educator Network in Silver Springs, MD says that all but one robotics club he observed in his school days were led by a male teacher. That one exception, led by a dynamic female professor had many more girls in attendance than any of the other clubs. Getting elementary school girls involved in math and tech clubs where there are visible female leader can do wonders to reinforce the message that there is a place for women in tech. Director of Women’s Coding Collective, Susan Buck says “If we plant seeds like this at an early age, girls entering high school will be less likely to shy away from technical electives”. So find a local chapter of Girls Who Code or a school computers club and encourage girls, the same way we’d encourage boys to try their hand at building a computer game or robot.
For relatable and “cool” female role models right here in infosec just look at Erin Jacobs, chief security officer of the United Collections Bureau (also known as @infosecbarbie on twitter) and Katie Moussouris, senior security strategist lead for the Microsoft Security Response Center. And there are a lot more amazing female role models out there. Girls need to see that there really is a place for them in tech and infosec.
The CSO of Tomorrow
There are things companies can do too, like creating internships for girls and working on downplaying the all-boys-club image. Combined with strong role models and keeping girls interested despite the diversions, eventually there will be a tipping point. And just like the doctor of today, no matter what specialty, in most peoples minds has an equal chance of being a man or woman, for the CSO of tomorrow there will be no need to discuss gender. Hopefully it will be a simple matter of the most qualified person doing the best job she, or he, can.