I’m a Woman in Cybersecurity: The Code Like a Girl Founder’s Story

I took a different path than other women of my generation. It lead me to an amazing cybersecurity career. Now, I’m giving parents and teachers the tools to inspire girls to follow me.

Shot of me working on Code Like A Girl from the Why Waterloo Video.

The ratio of women to men working in the tech field is bad, but the ratio of women to men working in cybersecurity is abysmal. As a woman working in cybersecurity and a mother of a young girl, I’m deeply invested in addressing the societal stereotypes that impact women’s involvement in tech and specifically cybersecurity. I’ve made it my mission to amplify the voices of women in technology to change perceptions of them, inspire girls to consider a career in tech, and help male allies figure out the best way they can help.

How I Got Involved In Cybersecurity

When I think back on how my cybersecurity career began, I attribute much of my success to the role models who encouraged me to never give up. I remember the conversations with my grandfather that taught me how to lead with empathy, and the time spent with one of my very few female mathematics professors, Dr. Shelly Wismath, who encouraged me to apply for and ultimately earn my Master’s degree in cryptography.

Even before those decisions, I knew I was on a different path than many other girls my age and one that would require a lot of hard work. As a high school student, I loved math and took great pride in trying to beat the boys’ scores (and often doing so).

Yet, when it came time to go to college, I was encouraged to become a math teacher, while many of the young men in my classes were told to explore engineering.

Being an advocate for myself was key in my ability to overcome these hurdles in my career — not an easy feat in a world with so few women and no clear path to follow. Now, as a leader in the industry, I leverage my story to show the next generation of girls that it is possible to be a successful woman in technology. I hope that the trail of breadcrumbs I’ve left makes their journey a bit easier.

The STEM Cliff: When Girls Lose Interest

I am witnessing the evolution of the stigma around girls in cybersecurity—and more generally, technology—through my daughter. She’s in the nine-and-under age group, which is when girls commonly outperform boys in STEM-related courses (STEM: Science Technology Engineering Math). The skills learned in these areas are critical for success in cybersecurity.

Between ages 10 and 13, however, we see what I call “the STEM cliff,” where girls across the board begin to lose interest in STEM. Sadly, we don’t see the STEM cliff start to track up again until women hit their mid-20s.

One key underlying perception that causes this drop is that STEM is not “cool.” In an effort to fit in, girls tend to conform to social pressures more often than boys.

Another key factor is the lack of educational opportunities at the state and provincial levels for those interested in technology. Changing this perception and increasing resources are huge challenges, but the benefits will greatly outweigh the efforts.

Microsoft’s study on girl’s loss of interest in science and technology: https://news.microsoft.com/europe/features/dont-european-girls-like-science-technology/#W3R2xCWJmcHeAkSH.99

The number of women in tech from the mid ’80s to the late 2000s has been abysmal at the 10 to 15 percent mark. Due to outreach by universities, like my alma mater the University of Waterloo, we are seeing the number of female tech graduates move closer to 30 percent. That means we have more female developers in the pipeline.

So when people say “we can’t find any women to hire,” the real problem is that they’re often looking for someone with intermediate to senior levels of experience, not the younger women that are currently looking for jobs. Given that only 10 to 15 percent of our workforce’s senior level is female, this makes sense.

If we really want to change the ratio we need to hire the women who are just entering the pipeline now and help them grow, so that in 5 to 10 years we have a higher percentage of intermediate and senior female developers.

Code Like A Girl Comes Into the Picture

To help grow the talent pipeline of women in technology, I started to conceptualize what is now Code Like a Girl when I was invited to speak at the Think About Math workshop for ninth grade girls.

Today, Code Like a Girl has over 35,000 subscribers and is a force in changing the world’s perceptions of women in technology.

Dinah at the launch of Code Like A Girl

My hope for the program is that it will give parents and teachers the tools to inspire girls like my daughter, and others her age, to foster their love of STEM through their teenage years and to consider careers in technology.

While Code Like A Girl will help spread this message far and wide, the real work needs to start in each and every home across the world.

Knowing this, I have introduced my daughter to Star Wars and other movies with strong female leads; to the book Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, which tells the real life stories of over 200 amazing women; and Marie Curie, Bessie Coleman and Ada Lovelace in the form of dolls. These might seem like trivial changes to make, but it has immersed her in a different culture and opened her eyes to all that is possible.

What Comes Next: Get Involved

Research indicates there will be a shortage of 1.8 million cybersecurity professionals by 2022, presenting a massive opportunity for women in my field.

Much like in any industry, getting a job is often about who you know, so networking and mentorship are a must. We can learn from our own mistakes, but when someone is looking out for us, supporting our triumphs and helping us through the missteps, we learn faster and can often avoid some of the mistakes.

My role at Arctic Wolf has given me the opportunity to reconnect with another amazing female mentor, Kim Tremblay, who has had a long and inspiring career in technology. Not only can I learn from her experiences, but she also shares insightful feedback that has made me a stronger and more strategic leader.

From my university professor and Kim to the writers at Code Like a Girl, women in technology stick together, helping one another along the path to a more diverse and fair work environment.

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