The UK’s History of Pioneering Women in Cybersecurity

Cybercrime is set to become the United Kingdom’s most common offense overtaking any other kind of crime in the country. The National Crime Agency announced losses from such crimes exceeding over £16 billion pounds annually making up a significant proportion of what the UK loses from organized crime. In our upcoming book, The Internet of Women, Why It Matters, I’ll be examining the history of women in this emerging field as well as highlighting role models that have appeared in popular culture.

The Harwell Dekatron Computer team, photo from The National Museum of Computing

Historically women in the UK have played prominent roles in cybersecurity. The Bletchley Park codebreaking operation during World War II was made up of nearly 10,000 people and about 75% of the workforce were women. That in itself is an amazing statistic, when during the 1940's most women did not even possess a bank account. Much of the work was manual nature in terms of crunching out numbers. But there were a few remarkable women who are finally being recognized as cryptanalysts working at the same level as their male peers:

· Mavis Batey (formerly Lever) — She was known for her great language skills and logical thinking

· Margaret Rock — She was a graduate mathematician from Bedford College London (now part of Royal Holloway College where I studied cryptography)

Both Mavis and Margaret joined Dilly Knox and his all female team in the “Cottage” and broke many ciphers.

· Joan Murray (formerly Clarke) — Another mathematician from Cambridge (who is represented in the film “The Imitation Game”) eventually became the Deputy Head of the “Hut” — a rare occasion for a female to hold a leadership position

· Ruth Briggs — A language scholar from Cambridge

My other blast from the past was on a recent trip to Bletchley for an off-site meeting which was being held in The National Museum of Computing. A fantastic collection of the advances of computing through the ages, complete with the machines that helped break the enigma code. But there was one beautiful piece of mechanical engineering — the oldest working computer. When working out a computation the valves lit up in a hypnotic way before producing the answer. That wasn’t the most fascinating find. It was an old black and white photograph which was displayed in front of the working computer. It was the final set of computer scientists who were completing their research — and it was 50% women.

There’s a huge opportunity for technologists such as myself to do more outreach to educate and encourage young women to not only learn to code but also exposes them to opportunities in the cyber security field.

Also, no one should underestimate the power and influence of the media. I began to ask myself, what kind of role models are being portrayed. More recently we have seen worthy interpretations.

Let’s take three examples:

1. The Imitation Game: Based on the story of Alan Turing trying to hack the enigma code. Here the cryptographer,Joan Clarke is finally portrayed on screen by Keira Knightley. I personally felt they attempted to downplay any hint of glamour or particular femininity. Joan was there for her intelligence and higher ability than the other male cross-word completers at the interview.

2. The Da Vince Code: We are introduced to Sophie Neveu who is a police cryptographer. The undertones of the movie itself is littered with the balance between male and female, with Sophie proving to be the yin to the yang of Langdon. Men and women work together toward a goal without the female being subordinate to the male in any way. Sophie is quick witted, agile, caring, compassionate and brilliant. She also has a PhD from Royal Holloway College just like me!

3. CSI: Here the special agent Avery Ryan works to solve crimes as a CyberPsychologist for the FBI. Not only do we get a view of the extent of cyber crime outside hacking, including cyber-theft and the introduction to the dark net. But we are also introduced to a new kind of role — the combination of psychologist with cyber skills that create a “hack for good” culture. The Avery Ryan character is based on the real-life pioneering psychologist Professor Mary Aiken — another awesome role-model.

Despite the growing demand and tremendous opportunities in the job market, cybersecurity remains an area where there is a significant shortage of skilled professionals regionally, nationally and internationally regardless of gender. Nearly two million global cybersecurity professionals will be needed by 2017, according to the National Cybersecurity Institute at Excelsior College.

This is a huge growth market. It is a highly technical and specialized area but it is also encompasses a community that ranges from focused hobbyists, professionals, and academia. All three areas contribute to the current climate of cybersecurity and in each area we need diversity to be able to change the situation of IT Security in this new world.

Dr. Alison Vincent is the Chief Technology Officer for Cisco in the UK and Ireland. She also serves as the focal point for innovation and technical leadership in the UK and Ireland technical community. In numerous organizations she has introduced agile methodologies, transforming software engineering to focus on customer value and improved time to market. Alison is an ambassador for Women In Science and Engineering (WISE) and Science Technology Engineering and Maths (STEMnet) ensuring an on-going technical talent in the workforce. She has previously held senior positions at both IBM and Micro Focus Ltd. She completed her PhD in Cryptography and a BSc in Mathematics and Computer Science both from London University.