The skills shortage in the burgeoning cyber security industry is real and increasing all the time. By helping girls to develop an interest in tech at an early age, could we help tackle this trend and redress the gender balance in the tech industry, all in one massive swoop?

Recruiting cyber security talent seems to be getting harder and harder. A 2021 government study found the UK’s cybersecurity recruitment pool has a shortfall of 10,000 people a year. And a recent report by  global recruitment firm Harvey Nash shows how the UK’s cyber skills shortage has surged by more than a third in the previous year.

Gender bias in cyber security

There’s a well documented gender bias in the world of cyber security and given the skills shortage, there’s a really strong case for addressing this.

Martha Lane Fox CBE, entrepreneur and crossbench peer says, “There are massive challenges in talent across every industry, cyber security being just one. It’s vital that the industry further diversifies and encourages a broad base of talent at all levels. It’s really easy to build a team of people that look and feel like you but if you do, you won’t get a team that’s truly seen and heard. If everyone’s the same, chances are their opinions are the same, and you’ll lose out of the great ideas that diverse perspectives can bring” (NCSC/KPMG UK, July 2020) 

Who we are and what we’re trying to do

As a group of women whose job roles are all connected with cyber security in Scotland we set out to explore what the issues really are and how we might improve gender balance in the sector. The barriers are real, but there must be steps we can take to bring change.

We started to explore both short term and long term strategies that can be employed to bring real change to the sector.

In this blog-post we focus on the long term.  How can we help girls to take an interest in cyber security from a young age?  Are there missing links in the world of formal education? What resources are out there already?  Read on for more about what we found when we delved into this area.

Building cyber thinking into education

Jenny N  (not her real name) is Service Improvement Manager for a well known UK Financial Services Company as well as a volunteer, working with young people in a sports setting. She comments,  “From chatting to 10 – 12 year old girls at my sports club I believe the current barrier preventing children from discovering an interest in Cyber Security is a lack of awareness. 

“It seems that children are learning technology but they are not always learning how to use computers in a safe way. For example they need to know how to use passwords and why we shouldn’t click on suspicious URL links. Given that learning to use a computer is a skill that all children will require as adults, it is vitally important that we teach them how to do this in a safe way. This is not just relevant to girls of course, but to all young people.

“If we think about some of the learning milestones that children achieve throughout their lives, there are frameworks in place to ensure they achieve these milestones in a safe way. For example, when learning to ride a bike, a child learns the basics of controlling the bike, and then has to attend cycling proficiency classes at school to ensure that they know how to operate a bike safely on the road. It’s the same with learning to drive a car – we all must complete a theory test to ensure they understand how to comply with the Highway Code and operate the vehicle safely. 

“When we think about the process of learning to use a computer, we teach word processing, PowerPoints, coding, automation, how to use the internet – but we never require children to go through an equivalent cyber safety course for the technology they’re learning. We need to do this, and do it in a way that works for both boys and girls.

“The good news is that this challenge is being tackled.  By using some of the resources that have already been developed, we can add a lot of value to the technology learning pathway by re-coupling cyber education with tech education.

As our group started to look around, we uncovered more and more resources, designed to do just that. While many of the resources are valuable to both boys and girls, we homed in on  The CyberFirst Competition, and the  events and resources which support it.

CyberFirst Girls

CyberFirst is a programme of opportunities to help young people explore their passion for tech by introducing them to the fast paced world of cyber security. 

Designed by the National Cyber Security Centre, CyberFirst covers a broad range of activities: a comprehensive bursary scheme to financially support undergraduates through university and a degree apprenticeship scheme. Many of these are open to everyone, but the project also includes  a girls’ only competition, mainly delivered through schools. Each activity in the competition  is designed to seek out diverse people with potential, offering the support, skills, experience and exposure needed to be the future first line of defence in our CyberFirst world.

The winners of the 2022 Girls Competition have just been announced.

CyberFirst Courses are available during summer and beyond.

Starting with tech skills

Of course there are other routes for girls too. In the informal learning environment of coding clubs and digital makerspaces there need to be ways of drawing girls into the groups in the first place, as well as ensuring that cyber security thinking is embedded within the activities.

Coder Dojo

Between 2012 and 2016 CoderDojo Scotland increased the proportion of girls attending their clubs from 18% to 28%. 

The Coder Dojo Gender Balance Toolkit  outlines some techniques that Dojo leaders across the country have found helpful in improving gender balance at their clubs. The toolkit talks specifically about CoderDojo clubs but the suggestions will be valid for any similar coding club. 

Clubs for girls and non-binary young people

This football club in Edinburgh has invested heavily in supporting young people to develop their digital skills.  The Digital Education Centre is sponsored by Baillie Gifford and Dell and young people get to explore coding, building digital games, programming robots and a whole lot more in a fun and friendly environment.

Kelly Gardner who runs the clubs at the innovation centre has recently introduced a group which is focused for girls and non-binary young people, again in an attempt to ensure a gender balanced approach.

Embedding cyber resilience

The makerspace at Paisley YMCA is another setting where girls are being supported to develop an interest in digital that will prepare them for the real world. The centre offers both mixed and girls only groups. There is a strong emphasis on embedding real, relevant  learning about cyber resilience into the mix of activities.

Supporting teachers

In 2021, Education Scotland awarded funding to Abertay University to develop an online module that will support secondary school computing teachers to deliver the ethical hacking unit of the National Progression Award (NPA) in cyber security. 

Also from Education Scotland a four-part professional learning programme is designed to develop educators’ knowledge of cyber resilience and internet safety skills and knowledge required to support learners to live their best online lives.

Our conclusion:  share more with girls about cyber!

There are already some incredible projects out there, helping people in general and girls in particular to connect with cyber at home, at school and through youth work.  By taking part in this project we raised our own awareness of what’s available. We think there’s still plenty more to be done and by playing our part in the journey, we can begin to see change, with an improvement in the gender balance of the cyber security industry here in Scotland and beyond.  By connecting up work happening in the fields of education, youth work and the corporate world

I hope that sharing some of the most relevant resources might encourage you or someone you know to consider a future in the wonderful world of cyber security.

We know from personal experience that girls can have great careers in cyber security. We think that starts with developing an interest in technology, with thinking about personal cyber resilience built in right from the start. We know too that there can be plenty of hurdles along the way. We’ll share more about some of our own journeys in our next blogpost. 

Empowering women in leadership

This blogpost content was gathered as part of a team challenge. The participants are all women, working in cyber security related roles in diverse sectors including finance, cyber security specialist companies and organisations that seek to support, protect and influence young people. 

Can you help us with our research?  We’re interested in finding real-world solutions to the challenge of helping girls and women find routes into cyber security jobs.  If you have ideas that would contribute to this important discussion and help us grow this vital area of our economy, please get in touch.

Hilary Phillips

May 2022