The well-documented cybersecurity skills gap is primarily fueled by an inordinately small percentage of women and minorities in the workforce. To help address this gap, Security Innovation and Imprivata recently awarded scholarships to 15 women to attend DEFCON, the world’s longest-running cybersecurity conference – and one that historically has not been well attended by women.

Intimidation and stigmas in male-dominated industries like the cybersecurity field are real. At an early age, girls are socially pushed into more “feminine” roles. Growing up, I was the only 7th grader (male or female) ever to complete an elite toolbox project in Metals class. It was put on display for the whole school to see and while I was proud of myself, I was also a little embarrassed because it wasn’t “feminine”. I was the only girl in town to play ice hockey. I cut my hair short. I told people to call me Moe so that it was less obvious I was a girl. Being a tomboy and different was exhausting and I know I’m not alone.

Removing barriers like these is important in making security approachable and it’s a primary driver for this program. All recipients were invited to a private dinner with several Security Innovation female engineers where they discussed cybersecurity and personal challenges in an open setting. There was a mix of coders, system admins, QA, product managers, and others who wanted to get into security or improve their specialization. There were so many inspiring women with incredible stories. They included:

  • The founder of Secure that Cert, affordable skill-building workshops
  • A Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) graduate who spent 3 days traveling to Vegas and endured visa challenges
  • The Chicago OWASP Chapter president of Women in Security
  • A woman recovering from brain damage (who ended up speaking at the conference during the Bio-hacking Village!)
  • An aspiring student with a handicap heading to a special cybersecurity school in California
  • A woman studying software engineering with a passion for music who wants to pursue a career that spans both fields
  • A victim of revenge porn interested in pursuing forensics
  • One woman who went from pursuing a medical degree to finding her calling in IT

Many were looking to hear from other women who paved the way before them; while others wanted to blaze their own trail. Some had harder obstacles to overcome than others, reminding us that access to opportunity and paths to success are not often equal. I was incredibly humbled and inspired by the experience. The women even offered some advice:

  • Start with a specific topic or discipline
    Find out all you can and keep focusing on learning
  • It’s never too late to get into security
    An admitted “old dog learning new tricks” now runs a STEM Cyber program for inner-city kids to provide a path to cyber success
  • Get experience
    Seek internship & volunteer opportunities, carry out assessments for friends and small businesses, engage in Capture The Flag (CTF) exercises
  • Build contacts and establish relationships
    Cybersecurity is all about collaboration
  • Join security forums and groups
    Local meetups are a great way to learn and network but also look to the cybersecurity community on social media to expand your knowledge and reach

With over 200 women applying for these scholarships, we learned we are not alone in our desire to close the cybersecurity skills gap. So to help every applicant, we’re giving free access to our cybersecurity eLearning courses and CMD+CTRL Cyber Range. By building key skills and earning a certificate of completion they’ll have industry-recognized training to bolster their resumes.

We already have a goal to give away 25 scholarships for next year’s DEFCON conference and the best way to start on that path is to share some of the recipients’ own stories. Look for those coming soon.

Read more about Security Innovation’s community work and learn about other organizations involved in the same mission.