STEM Girls Have Swagger

Boys can play with dolls – GASP! It won’t turn them into a… GIRL.

And, girls can play with code and strive for meaningful careers in cybersecurity without fearing that they will be seen as inferior. Yes, ladies… please stand up!

The 2017 Global Information Security Workforce Study: Women in Cybersecurity reports that men outnumber women by nine to one in the field. Frost & Sullivan predicts the gap between qualified professionals and unfilled positions will widen to 1.8 million by 2022. This is a gap that women can directly impact but it takes courage and stamina.

In a recent conversation with one of my favorite 11-year-olds, we were talking smack about glitter versus non-glitter (I really wanted to sport a t-shirt with glitter in the design and others did not want me to), but he taught me a valuable lesson – he said to the non-glitter fans, “Let a Barrett be a Barrett.” He went on to tell me, “You know, pink is my favorite color and I wear it proudly. I don’t care that my buddies poke fun sometimes. It is ok to be weird.” That is courage, my friends.

I carried this valuable advice into a conversation I had with a 16-year-old female who is really interested in a career in STEM. She seemed focused on some comments made to her from some of her male peers – they had indicated that she was weird to think that she could compete with them in a school sponsored coding contest. I told her she needed to “let a Kaitlin be a Kaitlin” and to embrace being weird because “it is ok to be weird.” Grab courage by the horns and go be you.

I had a chance to catch up with Kaitlin after the coding event and she came in second place! As she collected her winnings, she swaggered over to the boys and let them know coding wasn’t just for dudes and that it was also ok for them to play with dolls. Kaitlin believes that society places gender specific roles on us and this can be intimdating for girls her age to consider careers in STEM. It is more acceptable for men to be in these roles, while women are directed to be in more nurturing type roles. I heard a story recently on NPR that reported girls as early as age 6 begin considering themselves intellectually inferior to men.

If we were to rate this on snopes.com, it would probably look something like this:

CLAIM: Men are more qualified for jobs in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)

RATING: False, Not No Way, Fake News.

ORIGIN: Boys will be boys and girls will be girls. There has always been a natural division of labor dating back to the argrarian period.

SO WHAT? How do we help women change this?

From the perspective of a 16 year old, having more female instructors in technology classes would go a long way to increase confidence. Having specific programs available that would allow young women to see women in the workforce, doing what they do best, would be a form of encouragement that is not mainstream today.

Statistically speaking, the number of women represented in the technology profession has remained steady at 11% globally. That decreases to 8% when narrowed to cybersecurity specifically. The challenge remains not only in recruiting women into these roles, but in also retaining them. Kaitlin had some interesting insight for me when I asked her for some advice on making cybersecurity attractive for teens – “it boils down to a lack of confidence and being allowed to try, fail and learn. So much emphasis is placed on graduating at the top of class with very little regard to focusing on a skill that will make me stand out.” She recognized that she has come a long way in what she has been able to accomplish, but most of it has been self-taught. She claims that she has no female role models in cybersecurity to lean on and it would be “killer” to have some sort of mentor program that would let young women log into a website, see a catalog of women in the industry and then have the option to schedule time to interview them.

Kaitlin might be on to something, but I would take it a step further by including the men out there that are secure and supportive of the advancement of women in cybersecurity. It takes a balance to move the needle.

My parting advice to Kaitlin, and any young female looking at STEM, was – Girl, get your geek on but make it all encompassing. Don’t just focus on coding. Programming languages are a big deal, but the ability to write and communicate technical aspects to non-technical audiences is crucial for your cybersecurity survival kit. Recognize that it is not for the weak at heart and build stamina for standing your ground when the battle is worthy and above all, do yourself a favor and embark on this journey with a gender neutral outlook. Be confident in your skills and high five the crap out of yourself when you achieve a goal!