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Attracting Women to Cyber: Encouraging Words

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The recent study from Colorado State University (CSU) that revealed women are twice as likely as men to drop out of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs due to difficulty with calculus may not have been shocking, but it offered more confirmation about an ongoing issue in the cyber industry.

It heightened insight into why organizations such as the Cybersecurity Association of Maryland Inc. (CAMI) are leading efforts like the Women in Cyber networking event, to be held on Thursday, Aug. 4, at CIRQL, in Columbia Gateway Business Park, to attract more young women to math and information technology (IT)-related fields from an early stage, and make mentoring programs more available to further integrate them into the male-dominated cyber industry.

The reason that so many women are quitting so soon comes down to a lack of confidence. And since many young people often need a boost in that department, who’s better to mentor those young women than others who wore the same shoes — and kept working and became successful.

And that’s not unusual, either. CAMI Executive Director Stacey Smith said that the organization has “about 40 woman-owned cyber companies,” adding that, “Many of them have interesting stories about their careers to tell.”

Providing a Boost

Count Sherri Ramsay among the successful women in the cyber field who are also intent on creating more diversity for the next generation.

“I learned about partnering when I was working at NSA,” said Ramsay, a senior adviser at Baltimore-based CyberPoint. “I think the [Department of Defense] was way out in front in recognizing the threat of cyberattacks in the early 2000s, and understood the importance of getting people trained and working in the field, so we could actively defend our national security and our country.”

Ramsay noted several initiatives that have been set up to entice young women to get involved in technical programs, “though there are never enough,” she said. “We’re trying to get young men involved as well, but what we’re really aiming for is diversity.”

One option is through National Women in Cybersecurity, for which Ramsay serves as a board member. “They look to connect young women of college age to cyber,” she said. “They want to connect them with educators, as well as senior men and women in the field who can mentor them.”

Locally, there are a number of initiatives going on. One is offered at CyberPoint, which sponsors the Cybersecurity Networking Reception (CNR), an annual event held in Baltimore. “We invite women from the region who are in various stages of their careers, so they can make connections and offer support. It’s attracted about 100 women,” said Ramsay.

The third CNR will be held in September, at a location to be determined. “We think we’ll attract about 150 women this time,” she said, “so it’s already outgrown our offices on East Pratt Street.

In addition, CyberPoint supports other events in the community, including those at The Bryn Mawr School, the University of Maryland University College, and others for middle and high school students.

Varied Experiences

Gina Abate is another industry veteran, in her case with more than 20 years in private industry and 20 more in the public sector with the Veteran’s Administration, and knows how it feels to be “the only one,” so to speak. “I was the only woman around the board tables for many years,” said the president and CEO of Edwards Performance Solutions, in Elkridge.

Abate pointed out a common criticism of women, as well as men, who have a technical background. “Many people who were good at technology were not as good at communicating what we were trying to do and achieve,” she said. “I could understand the technical part and explain the information to leadership in a way they could understand and approve our moving forward.”

That’s an especially interesting observation from Abate, who was a poli-sci and history double-major in college.

“I think the cyber piece of the puzzle isn’t just about math and science. It’s about managing operations and programs, and mitigating risk. I think those aspects of the industry aren’t discussed enough, in relation to women,” she said. “Women are good at this. Helping companies prepare is the aspect that appealed to me.”

And where might that skill pay off? “There are so many ways for hackers to break into a system now, and I think we women are good at thinking plans and processes through, while mitigating risk,” Abate said.

Abate is involved in CAMI and is also participating in a new networking group for woman. “I enjoy the mentoring angle. That’s important,” she said, adding, “I think progress has been made, because there are more role models in place now.”

‘Places for Everyone’

Another perspective was offered by Gwen Greene, president and CEO with Applied Information Technology, of Hanover, who is also chairing CAMI’s Women in Cyber Initiative. When she speaks of her journey from Cherry Hill, a rough section of Baltimore City, to young women who may not have considered a career in cyber, she should have their full attention.

“In colleges, you tend to see many male professors, which can be intimidating to a woman at that age,” said Greene.

“In the cyber field, it’s the same thing. But women can gain whatever disciplines they prefer while they’re getting their education and branch out into various parts of the cyber field later,” as Abate, did, “such as security risk management, network security and security assessment testing. They can use certain math and STEM skills there and don’t need calculus,” she said, in reference to the recently released CSU study.

And, like Ramsay, she noted those stovepipe-type personalities who are often found in the field.

“Many STEM-type people tend to be more introverted, so getting them together to network can be a challenge,” Greene said, “but know there are places for everyone in the cyber field.”

Her early career experience included acquiring degrees from three area colleges, all in IT, including her Ph. D. from Towson University, which included a dissertation on organizational behavior and the security culture.

So Greene has a clear view of the big picture. “I’m working with Stacey [Smith] to reach out to younger girls and other underrepresented groups by visiting Girl Scouts and schools, and appearing on webcasts and at networking events to share my stories.

“I’ve had several influences, including the youth pastor at my childhood church, who suggested that I go to college,” she said of her early days in Cherry Hill, on the southern tip of the city.

“Also, my mom and I believed in exposure,” Greene said. “We didn’t think I needed to become a statistic. Circumstances don’t have to dictate your life.”

They Can Do It

As Greene noted, some encouragement from a respected figure and a can-do attitude can lead to great things, which is why Karen Austin, publisher of Baltimore-based United States Cybersecurity magazine, is also helping to mold the next generation in the cyber field.

“We sponsor and mentor women, at UMBC, for example,” said Austin, a CAMI board member. “They need people to encourage them. They have to have the passion, but they can’t get discouraged.”

What else? “I take students to dinner and on field trips, to places like Signals Defense (in Owings Mills) so they can see the real cyberworld and they can ask as many questions as they want,” she said. “Many have graduated. In fact, one UMBC grad got her first job in San Francisco and just got a bigger job in Arizona.”

The publication also serves as a media sponsor for conferences, such as the CyberMaryland Conference, which will be held on Oct. 20–21, at the Hilton Baltimore. The publication is also partnering with the George Washington University at its Cyber Academy, in Ashburn, Va., on Sept. 16, for the first Women’s Pep Rally for Cybersecurity.

These women are just a few of those who have bucked the odds to succeed in the cyber field. While more are needed, there are numerous other examples “who make great role models,” said Smith.

“We have one who was a lawyer before starting her cyber company, and she is also an artist and author. Another owns a company that has done work at NSA for over 15 years and recently diversified to do work in the commercial sector,” she said. “It’s great to see the progress made by some of these amazing women in a male-dominated industry.”