Cybersecurity in 2019: Working towards a gender balance

Cybersecurity in 2019: Working towards a gender balance

Cybersecurity in 2019: Working towards a gender balance

Professor Karen Renaud, Abertay University

Prof Karen Renaud

The books we read, and the movies we watch, reflect the concerns of society at large, and the threats we are facing. For example, the most popular book in 1948, published three years after World War II, was “The Diary of Anne Frank”. The most popular book in 1960 was “To Kill a Mockingbird”, reflecting society’s growing awareness of the scourge of racism. After 2010, a number of bestsellers emerged dealing with the cyber threat (e.g. Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World's First Digital Weapon by Kim Zetter).

The entertainment field, too, reflects the pervasiveness of cyber in our everyday lives. “Skyfall”, the 2012 James Bond blockbuster, featured cyber threats, as did Rowan Atkinson’s “Johnny English Strikes Again” in 2018. Reports of cyber-attacks and data breaches also regularly appear in news reports, notably the TalkTalk data breach in 2015, and the WannaCry ransomware attack that impeded the functioning of many organizations in May 2017.

The cyber threat has undeniably entered popular culture and is certainly something the population increasingly knows and cares about. Governments are investing in cyber security endeavours, cyber-related businesses are innovating, and universities offer degrees in cyber security. A comprehensive study of these efforts would be fascinating; here we are considering one aspect: gender balance. 

Cybersecurity has its roots in computer science, and the gender balance in this field, as in many other science-related fields, is disappointing. Wang et al., in a recent paper, suggest that this gender imbalance will remain until the end of this century. Given that the foundation of cybersecurity is male dominated, how does cybersecurity itself compare? The situation seems even worse: it has been reported that only 8% of European cybersecurity staff are women.

There are many outstanding women in this field. Abertay University’s Natalie Coull won the Outstanding Woman in Cyber prize at the inaugural Scottish Cyber Awards in 2016. In fact, the Division of Cybersecurity at Abertay University has 8 females out of 19 staff members. Why is Abertay an outlier in this respect? We can only report on what our institution did right. The head of the division is female, and one of the Professors is female. Both appointments send a powerful message to those wanting to study cybersecurity at Abertay, and to academics interested in a career in cybersecurity.

There is a breadth of different career opportunities in the cybersecurity field that can be very rewarding for individuals, regardless of their gender. Cybersecurity is a very dynamic area, with lots of scope for individuals to find an aspect of it that they are passionate about. It is not a male-only domain.

Abertay University Students

In conclusion, the gender balance in cybersecurity needs to be addressed: we can only fill all the unfilled positions in cyber if we are able to draw on talented people across the entire population. We can indeed encourage more women to enter this field by appointing women to leadership positions, and by making it clear that we need cybersecurity specialists of both genders to join the field and make a difference.