Hacking the Glass Ceiling: Girl Scouts nudging girls into technology careers

Fern White-Hilsenrath
Mar 29 · 5 min read

By Fern White-Hilsenrath

American Girl Scouts are no longer just learning to tie knots, shoot arrows, climb rocks, ride horses, and build camp fires. Girls are instead learning skills that will help them to safely navigate a world filled with smart phones, smart watches, tablets and privacy concerns. Girl Scouts are now earning cybersecurity badges.

There is a critical shortage of women in the field of cybersecurity, accounting for less than 20 percent of the workforce. So says Cybersecurity Ventures, which also publishes Cybercrimes Magazine. This is despite phenomenal industry growth driven by cyber terrorism and other cyber crimes. A 2018 global forecast published by Markets and Markets, predicts that the industry will be worth $248 billion by 2023.

A 2017 report conducted by PriceWaterhouse, asserts; “Despite increased interest in cybersecurity as a career and a global shortage of professionals in the field — both male and female — the 2017 Global Information Security Workforce Study demonstrates there is plenty of progress still to be made.”

Responding to this chasm in the workforce, Girl Scouts recently rolled out an ambitious program geared at closing the gender gap. “STEM has always been a part of the Girl Scouts experience,” says Abby Whipker, senior manager STEM programs at the Girl Scouts of Greater New York. “But, a few years ago, the decision was made on a national level to revamp badges to address the lack of exposure many girls have to STEM in their schools and communities.”

As part of the Badge training, the girls learn about computer viruses, cyber attacks, identity theft and how to identify them. Most importantly, in an age of online predators, Whipker says the Girls Scouts learn about their trust circle, creating an online identity, safe information sharing and privacy.

The badges currently have three levels, Cybersecurity 1: Basics, Cybersecurity 2: Safeguards and Cybersecurity 3: Investigator. Girl Scouts hopes that by earning these badges, the girls will be empowered not only to safely use and better understand technology, but to nudge then down the technology career pipeline.

Annmarie Gajdos, 20, is a junior majoring in Computer Information Systems at Baruch College, was already bewildered as news broke of covert operations by Russian operatives to hack the 2016 Elections. Social media giant Facebook later admitted that their platform had been manipulated to get Donald Trump elected.

“When I became interested in cybersecurity, it was more related to once Donald Trump was elected,” said Gajdos, “learning about all the things going on with Facebook, and kind of like the messaging and the code behind it,” she says.

Her interest in the field is an exception rather than the rule, as is clearly shown by the composition of the classes she takes in the subject area at Baruch. “It’s definitely mostly guys, which was a little difficult at first, says Gajdos.

“There’s definitely a big gap in my classes, says Laura Silva, 21 another Baruch CIS major minoring in cybersecurity. “On my first day of college in my first programming class, I was the only girl in the class. I got used to it after a while, but it is a little bit intimidating — it’s like a class of 20 people and three women.”

Sivan Tehila a cyber expert and entrepreneur is also hyper aware of the shortfall and has taken steps to fix it. In January 2019 Tehila launched Leading Cyber Ladies of New York. “What we want to do is mentor young women interested in cybersecurity, all the way through college and into their first year of their career,” Tehila said.

In February Tehila hosted a room full of women who were interested in a cyber career, or are looking to change careers. Panelists were Nicole Becher and NYU professor and penetration tester (hacker), Michal Leshem Cyber Education Expert, and Shir Rinot Senior Cyber Analyst at Firedome.

Speaking in an interview, Rinot, a former cyber expert in the Israeli Defense Force said, “there were not very many women in the technology field in the army, almost none. Most of the meetings that I had, I was with a room full of 20 men,” she said.

Not only was she the only woman in a room, Rinot also had to earn the respect of the men at the table. “Immediately you got less respect so we need to fight harder for opportunities and recognition. But I tell you that because we are a minority, if you’re excellent at what you do you would always get more noticed than other people in the room.”

It wasn’t any different when Rinot tried to further her studies. “I was doing a master degree in cybersecurity at Fordham University; even there, there were two women in a room full of men.”

“We need to do something about it, we need to be on more panels to support each other. Sometimes I have a question and I feel a bit embarrassed to ask other people (men), I wish I had another female to consult with and ask questions like a mentor. It could really be a big deal in this manly environment,” Rinot said.

Maria Blekher, Director of the Innovation Lab at Yeshiva University, says she believes the situation has turned a corner. “We live in a time that this entire field is being shifted. We get to see more and more women in tech talking about privacy and leading innovation, leading research and leading organizations, like the one I’m leading. Women are looking for role models, and the more role models we see out there, doing tech, talking about tech. The more visible and tangible it will look to the next generation,” she said.

Blekher thinks that her organization Yeshiva University and others like Leading Cyber Ladies of New York and Girl Scouts of America are leading social change. “Social change takes time, and it takes courage. I think we are part of the change and I am hoping that the next generation of girls who are in colleges and high schools will have better opportunities.”