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New movement aims to increase gender diversity in cybersecurity

January 19, 2017

There’s a movement afoot at Dakota State University to add more gender diversity to the field of cybersecurity.

Using a clever play on the word “cyber” for its name, CybHER’s mission is “to empower, motivate, educate, and change the perception of girls and women in cyber security.” Currently, men make up about 87 percent of those employed in the field, according to a CybHER document.

CybHER is the next step in Dakota State’s cybersecurity education outreach programs. Over the last three years, the Madison-based institution has sponsored co-ed and girls only summer camps, reaching hundreds of students in the 7th through 12th grades. These became “the motivation for CybHER,” said Dr. Ashley Podhradsky, associate professor of information assurance and digital forensics at DSU. She and DSU information systems instructor Pam Rowland are CybHER founders; they are pursuing grant opportunities to provide funding.

“We have had awesome summer events,” Podhradsky said, keeping girls’ attention, getting them excited about the field, and supporting their enthusiasm, “but then we send them home with the thought ‘We’ll see them next summer’.”

To have a continuous impact on girls interested in cybersecurity, Podhradsky and Rowland will be creating time-themed interventions for CybHER, ways to teach the girls fun and creative things they can do with technology.

CybHER Seconds will be quick interventions like emails and tweets; CybHER Minutes will be short videos on topics that seem overwhelming or intimidating, such as encryption or cryptography. CybHER Hours will feature inspiring talks by leading women in the field about how they have gotten where they are professionally. CybHER Days will be a full day of activities, teaching coding by creating video games, for example. CybHER Together events will be similar to CybHER Days, but will involve the girls and a caregiver, similar to a “Mommy and me” event.

Fun is the hook for the girls through these interventions, Podhradsky said. For the parents involved in the CybHER Together events, the purpose is a bit more serious. Parents want to see their kids have a successful career, she said, and through a CybHER Together day, parents can see that their daughters “can get that very rewarding, successful, lucrative career within this field.”

NATIONAL CONFERENCE

Because the need for gender diversity in the field is noted nation-wide, Podhradsky presented the CybHER plan at a January conference session in Washington, D.C., the NSF Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace Principal Investigator (SaTC PI) biennial meeting.

Some of the other schools participating in that session were Carnegie-Mellon University, Dartmouth, Purdue, and Yale. There was good discussion about ways to increase the diversity within the K-12 community, she said, ways to have a lasting and continuous impact with that demographic.

Besides sharing what Dakota State has done for outreach, she also learned from the other schools. “It’s good information sharing,” she said, learning about different resources for supporting the work, and some of the different programs and activities offered at these other institutions.

“We all have the same goals,” Podhradsky said, “so why not share the different, unique things we come up with to help support that goal?”

OUTREACH SUCCESSES

After a few years of the summer-only programs, there is evidence that the outreach programs are successful. Podhradsky said that some of the girls they have had in the camps are now students at DSU. “It’s really cool to see the gap close, and see the girls we worked with who are now working with other girls,” she said.

Stephanie Plucker, a graduate student in information assurance, was already in college when the DSU GenCyber camps began, but she had attended a similar event in Sioux Falls when she was in high school. The Parker, S.D., native has helped with the GenCyber camps, and said, “There’s always at least one girl who reminds me of me when I was that age.”

“I really love seeing other girls and women get into cybersecurity or computers because it’s one of my bigger passions,” she added, a passion that comes from the variety in the field.

“Technology intrigues me because it’s changing constantly, and that’s great, because I don’t want to be in something where it’s the same all the time.”

To engage and support girls interested in this ever-changing field, the full CybHER program is slated to be launched this fall, but some of the features of CybHER will be held this spring, including a CybHER Day on March 8 at a Women in Science day at Southeast Tech in Sioux Falls, and one on March 15 at a 7th and 8th grade STEM conference in Estherville, Iowa. A CybHER Together event is planned for April 8 at the Washington Pavilion in Sioux Falls. In addition, the third GenCyber girls camp is being planned for this summer, for girls in 7th through 9th grades. For more information on these events, contact Podhradsky at Ashley.podhradsky@dsu.edu

While it is a busy time, it is exciting, Podhradsky said.

“There has been a lot of demand for our work,” but “I like looking forward to creating new partnerships with other researchers and colleagues, ultimately introduce more girls to this field.”