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Geek image deters girls from cybersecurity careers

Women earn only 18 percent of computer science degrees as the field's geeky image makes it unappealing to girls. And yet, more women are wanted for cybersecurity jobs.
/ Source: Reuters

There were no lines for the ladies room. That was unusual for an event attended by thousands but typical in the cybersecurity field where a futuristic image clashes with an old-fashioned gender gap.

At cybersecurity and hacker gatherings, women are clearly in the minority among the sea of men lining escalators, filling gigantic hotel ballrooms and networking in hallways. (Some men grumbled about the lack of women at event parties).

While the U.S. government and private sector urgently try to beef up cybersecurity efforts, the information technology field that supplies talent remains largely a male domain.

Experts say the lack of women is not so much a matter of discrimination as the fact that young women do not think of cyber as a career option. They attribute that partly to an unappealing "geek" image from movies and girls' lack of early computer skills that boys develop by playing video games.

The portrayal in movies and television of a nerd loner, wearing thick glasses, soldering circuits together, and living in a dungeon-like room surrounded by computers and eating boxed pizza can be a deterrent.

Phyllis Schneck, chief technology officer for public sector at McAfee, Inc, said she was one of the only women in computer science as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University and her friends used to make geek jokes.

"But when it came time to help them fix their computers because it ate their term paper, I'm the one they called," she said.

Her father, who wrote operating systems and code at NASA, inspired her. He would fund the roll of quarters to play video games outside the house, but inside was different.

"His rule was if you're going to play with a computer in this house, like a game, you're going to write it," she said.

Lucinda Sanders, co-founder of the National Center for Women and Information Technology, also followed the lead of her father, who ran one of the first data centers for Western Electric.

"I was often the only woman in the room, and often the only leader that was a woman in the room," the former AT&T Bell Labs executive said.

Once, as chief technology officer, she went to a meeting to brief customers. They wanted to know where her boss — the chief technology officer — was, Sanders recalls.

Computing decline
The relative lack of women in cybersecurity is reflective of the broader high-tech industry.

NCWIT started in 2004 with a National Science Foundation grant to address women's declining participation in computing.

Over half of the overall professional workforce is women, but they account for only 25 percent of information technology jobs, according to statistics on the NCWIT website .

In 1985, when the field was still relatively new, women earned 37 percent of undergraduate computer science degrees. That was the peak. The figure was 18 percent in 2009; it drops to 11 percent at research universities.

The government and private sector want to draw more women into the cybersecurity field for very practical reasons: the need for a bigger pool of talent and the innovation that diversity brings.

"The cyber issue is a huge issue. We are up against some determined countries," said Richard "Dickie" George, who recently retired as a top official from the National Security Agency. "Today, if you look at countries like China and India they have so many more people than we do that it is going to be very, very hard for us to out-people them."

"So we have to be more creative and more innovative. And you just aren't going to get there if you are not going to recruit from half your population," George said.

Unlike some sectors of the economy where jobs are stagnant, cybersecurity is a growing field. NSA expects to hire about 1,200 and the Department of Homeland Security about 1,000 more cybersecurity professionals.

"I would have every cybergeek in the United States who is any good at detecting hackers and intrusions come work for me," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said on Thursday at a cybersecurity event sponsored by The Washington Post.

'Little bit uncomfortable'
The government and private sector actively try to recruit women, but there just are not enough in the pipeline.

George said women have told him they did not like being in such a small minority in computer science classes.

"It wasn't like anybody was picking on them or making life hard for them, but they just felt a little bit uncomfortable in that situation," he said.

And they were not as comfortable initially in dealing with computers and code as the men in class.

"A big part of that is computer games," George said. "Guys are just used to sitting there playing these games, trying to find ways to beat the game, trying to find ways to cheat, and that's just setting up a cyber mentality that makes them more comfortable with the whole field."

Technology experts say interest needs to be sparked before college. Unlike fields like law and medicine, it can be difficult for students to grasp what a technology career would look like.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers a program for female high school students to explore engineering and computer science. Dartmouth College holds a summer robotics camp for boys and girls. Microsoft has a DigiGirlz program for high school girls.

Both George and Sanders expect a shift toward more gender balance will take another decade or more.

Sanders said she would like to see women comprise a third of the information technology workforce: "It's when gender is not the conversation anymore. It's when you see enough people in the environment where you don't feel peculiar."

But since men are in most of the power positions they are the ones who will have to engineer the shift to attract more women to computing, she said.

Schneck said since people are surrounded by technology now with computers, cell phones, iPads, it might be time to retire the geek image made popular during the dotcom boom and view the profession as mainstream as doctors or lawyers.

"I think now it's just time to take the geek out of it."