I’ve had several items cross my social media feeds, along with email, in the last few days that prompt me to write this. It’s gotten a bit longer than I intended, but there’s a lot to say on an important topic. As a first post to this blog in 2014, I think it is a good topic to address. It has to do with imbalance and bad behavior in the overall field of cybersecurity: the low percentage of women, and how they are sometimes treated.
Computing, as a field in the USA, has had a low and almost constantly decreasing percentage of women going into the field and staying. (The US is the primary focus of this blog entry; I believe the problem is similar in Canada, the UK, Australia, and others, but don’t have the data. Also, there is a corresponding problem with other traditional minorities, but that’s not what prompted this post and I hope to visit it later.). There are many reasons posited for this, many of which are likely somewhat to blame; there is no single, dominant reason, apparently. Many studies and reports have been conducted, experiments tried, and programs put into place, but few have made any measurable, long-term change. The problem is almost undoubtedly rooted in social behaviors and expectations because there are other cultures where the ratio of women to men is about 1:1, or even has women in larger percentages.
Cybersecurity is little different, and may be worse. I regularly speak at conferences, companies, and agencies where the room will have 30 men and one (or no) women. At events where there are speakers or panels, all the speakers and panelists are men. The few women attending often are simply the ones there processing registrations. And there are a nontrivial number of reports of women being groped and harassed at professional meetings (see, for instance, this). Also bad, women are frequently abused online as well as offline, and not only in security and computing. Many are reluctant to publish email addresses or contact info online because of unwanted, inappropriate content sent to them — no matter whether they’re 8 or 80.
(Right now, if you are thinking to yourself that there isn’t a real problem, that things are fine, and it is all a problem of some women who can’t take a joke, then you are part of the problem, and you need to shape up. Worse, if you think that women shouldn’t be upset about this status quo, instead they should get back to the kitchen, then you are so out of touch that I don’t know where to start. In either case, try telling that same thing to women doctors, pilots, police, firefighters, or better yet, to our many women in the military — especially when your safety is in their care. Then come back when you’ve healed up. If nothing else, at least keep in mind that there are legal reasons to treat people equally and with respect.)
Assuming you are actually living in the 21st century, let me assure you that the overall situation is a HUGE problem for us. As a field, and as a society this is bad because we have a shortage of talent that is getting worse with time. We also have some rather skewed and limited ideas of how to approach problems that might benefit from a more inclusive pool of designers and practitioners. And as human beings we should be concerned — especially those of us who are sons, brothers, fathers, and husbands — people who could be (and sometimes are) our mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives are being mistreated and demeaned. That simply isn’t right. Neither is it right that we are limiting the opportunities for individuals to learn, grow, and achieve.
Computing, security, privacy, creativity — those are all traits of the mind. Minds exist in all kinds of bodies, including those with other colors, more or fewer curves, different masses and volumes, varied ages, and some have less physical abilities than others. But that doesn’t change what is possible in their minds! We should applaud ability, dedication, and imagination wherever we find it. Discouraging women (or anyone with ability) from pursuing a career in computing, abusing them online, and groping them at conferences are all counterproductive to our own futures — as if rude and wrong wasn't enough. Cybersecurity and privacy are key areas where we need more insight and creativity — we should enhance it rather than diminish it.
No field is populated only with superstars and wild talents. That is especially true in IT. We hear about people with great accomplishments, and we like to think we’re special in our way, but the truth is that the field is too large for any individuals to master it. Success comes from teams, and the most successful teams are those that integrate many different viewpoints, backgrounds, and skill sets, and who respect their differences yet work with common goals. That includes bringing in people from different genders, ethnicities, ages, and more. Success is enhanced by diversity.
I’m not going to go through a longer litany of problems here, or try to analyze the situation further. I’ve been working with various women’s groups for over 20 years and I still don’t pretend to be able to understand all of what is happening. It is complex. However, I see the problem continuously when I look at our student body, when I visit professional meetings, and when I read reports. I know it is real.
What I can do, is offer some advice to those who care.
Here are some general tips that should be common sense.
The basic idea here is really embodied in #8. Be thoughtful and don't treat anyone as substantially different Instead, relate to every person as a professional. But most of all, speak up if you see someone getting picked on or treated badly, or if they aren’t getting encouragement they should. It’s like security and privacy itself — an attack on any link is an attack on the whole, and if a link falls we are all diminished.
There is debate within many minority communities of whether aligning with self-interest groups is helpful. On the plus side, the mentoring, the support resources, and the sense of community can all be a big help. However, that also runs the risk of not sufficiently engaging in the mixed environment where one has to work, of developing unrealistic expectations based on anecdotal stories, and failing to help educate the majority in how to help. There seems to be enough positive “buzz” about some groups and their activities to warrant recommending them. Not all are likely to fit your own particular needs and interests, so check them out. If you know of some I have missed, please let me know so I can add them here.
The (ISC)2 is organizing a women’s special interest group. I have spoken with organizers , but am unsure of the status of it at this time.
The Women in Cyber Security conference will be held in April in Nashville. I know nothing about it other than what is on their web page, but it looks like it could be a great experience.
Of course, please keep in mind that not all men are the same! Many want to do the right things but aren’t always sure what is appropriate. Help train a few.
From a professional point of view, being a member of ACM and ISSA is good idea for anyone in the field, based simply on the value of the organizations. Both promote professionalism, community, and personal growth, and there are a variety of other benefits to membership. Both have steep discounts for student members. I am a long-standing member of both, and can recommend them.
Our society has a lot of problems with cybersecurity and privacy. New flaws show up, and old flaws don’t really get fixed. Parties ranging from individual criminals to nation-state organizations are all seeking ways to penetrate our systems and mess with our information. We need every good person we can get on board and working together if we hope to make progress. We should make every effort to enable that partnership.
Or think of it in these terms: if we can’t be trusted to protect and empower those within our own community, why should anyone trust us to protect anything else?
Updated 1/7: Added a few list items about mentoring and language, listed ISACA, small grammatical corrections.
Updated 1/8: Corrected several typos
Updated 1/10: Added ISSA group link. Added comment from Anita Jones; this is the memo she mentions in that comment.
Updated 1/14: Small grammatical corrections.
Updated 1/22: Added ACM-W page link
Updated 1/24: Added the Systers link
Updated 2/16: Added link to subscribe to the ACM-W list. Minor grammatical cleanup.
Updated 3/2: Added links to ACSA and (ISC)2 scholarship information.
Updated 6/8: Added link to the Ada Initiative
If you have any additions or corrections to the above lists, please send me private email. Also note that, as usual, anonymous, spammy, or abusive feedback to the blog may not be published as is, if at all.