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Where are the women? Why a lack of women in cybersecurity matters

Lilly Gibson-Dougall | Cyber Security Fellow

Despite the significant progress towards gender equality across the last century, women remain underrepresented in a number of professional fields. Within the realm of technology this is particularly prevalent, with women holding only 26 per cent of technology jobs in 2014—10 per cent lower than in 1991.

While this number has been increasing slowly over the last 6 years, we are still witnessing massive underrepresentation of women of colour—with black women holding 3 per cent of tech jobs, and Latina or Asian women holding only 1 per cent each.

In 2019, it was predicted that within the cybersecurity industry women held 20 per cent of jobs, which, despite an overall increase, remains quite low.

When we look at the numbers, we can clearly see there’s an issue with equality in the tech industry; so what does this lack of representation mean?

Women contributing and working within technology goes beyond simply reaching gender equality for the sake of it. Technology governs almost every aspect of our lives, with technology and social media platforms providing greater opportunities for women to participate in debate and share their voice.

The Council on Foreign Relations reported that in nations where women suffer large inequities in their offline life, they are more likely to have larger social media followings than their male counterparts.

Women are clearly using technology at least as often—if not more so—than men, so their participation in designing and creating it is essential.

By having more diversity within the workplace, organisations are going to benefit from greater innovation, are less likely to fall into ‘groupthink’ patterns, and will assist in creating technology that can be utilised effectively by a larger population.

Two key areas in which underrepresentation has caused significant issues is in AI coding, and cyber-attacks.

When it comes to using AI, the technology itself can actually assist in breaking down gendered boundaries. The Harvard Business Review found that in the context of selecting directors on company boards, an efficient AI system was more likely to recommend a diverse range of applicants, in contrast to the existing system of directors being selected based on gender, race, class, or association.

Yet when it comes to creating AI technology, the coders themselves often have internalised biases that they’re not aware of.

When the proportion of men in coding is much higher than women, we inevitably see these biases arise, as well as a lack of consideration for issues relating specifically to women.

In 2015, Amazon had to scrap an AI recruitment tool because the data used to create the system had been disproportionately skewed towards selecting male resumes. Earlier in the 2010s, women were also impacted by voice recognition technology in their cars, with carmakers acknowledging that women or people with accents were less likely to be understood.

As a means of combatting these issues, or even anticipating other gendered AI concerns, employing more female IT and STEM graduates would be a simple, yet effective first step.

When it comes to cybersecurity, it can be easy to assume that cyber-attacks affect anyone, regardless of identifiable characteristics. Yet it is important to recognise that different demographics are impacted disproportionately.

Targeted attacks against women specifically are a major source of insecurity for women in cyberspace, and often go far beyond simple bullying.

In the 2016 presidential election, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was the victim of a cyber-attack by Russian-linked hackers who forwarded the documents to Wikileaks.

While this has also happened to other democratic candidates, the viciousness of the attack combined with her gender impacted her campaign in a different way. The leaking of Hillary’s emails and the subsequent debates regarding her honesty as a presidential candidate were attacked in a manner that related far more to her status as woman than her actual capabilities.

Donald Trumps’ comments were parroted and retweeted by his supporters across the internet in a way that no male candidate had to contend with.

This online behaviour also extends to cyber and trolling attacks against female journalists and other women in the public eye.

Ginger Gorman, author of the book Trollhunting, wrote about the extent to which women are targeted as victims of intense cyber-attacks and bullying. In her personal situation, she detailed how cyber trolls used hacking tactics and metadata to track down her address and share her private information publicly.

As the cybersecurity industry works to balance privacy with efficiency and technological progress, including women in all stages of development and implementation can only improve these issues. If half of your online population is insecure, then cybersecurity companies and governments are failing in their duties.

While reaching gender equality is dependent upon a number of social, cultural and economic factors, by employing a greater number of women within the field of tech and cybersecurity, there is a greater likelihood that these issues will receive more attention.

Only when we have women who understand and experience these problems, can we find long term, effective solutions.

Lilly Gibson-Dougall is the Cyber Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article was commissioned for YAIA's International Women's Day series.


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