Women cracking the code
National cybersecurity contest helps to battle industry gender gap
At an ice breaker during 2014’s DEF CON, the world's largest annual hacker convention, a stranger greeted Heather Lawrence like a long-lost relative, repeating over and over, “I am so happy to see you …”
“I thought, ‘Who is this crazy person and what is going on?’” said Lawrence, a graduate student at the University of Central Florida. “She then tells me it’s very lonely being a woman in cyber, and I was the first woman she’d seen at DEF CON. She insisted I make a career out of it plus bring along some of my friends.”
That's the kind of warm welcome that female hackers get these days as the cybersecurity industry strives to become more diverse. Lawrence is one of two women on the University of Central Florida team that won its third consecutive National Collegiate Cyber Defense Championship this year. The team is taking a victory tour of Washington, D.C., including stops at team sponsor Raytheon, the FBI in Quantico and with White House officials.
It’s no wonder Lawrence attracts attention in the cyber world. Women account for only 10 percent of the cybersecurity workforce, according to the International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium.
“As a hiring manager, I hunt for women,” said Valecia Maclin, a Raytheon cyber program director. “They bring with them a different perspective and a diversity of thought that’s critical in defending networks.”
As she was looking to make friends after enrolling at the University of Central Florida, Lawrence stumbled upon the Collegiate Cyber Defense Club – also known as Hack@UCF – and was immediately hooked on information security.
“I didn’t know anything that they were talking about, and it was daunting,” she said. “But the people were so welcoming, and they wanted to explain things.”
Lawrence might not have discovered the field if it weren’t for Hack@UCF. Men are twice as likely as women to have spoken with a cybersecurity professional, meaning it is easier for them to establish contacts within the industry, according to a 2015 study commissioned by Raytheon and the National Cyber Security Alliance.
“It’s very hard for me to find tips and tricks to cyber success because, frankly, there aren’t any women to ask,” Lawrence said.
Maclin said that she makes herself available as a mentor and looks for opportunities to “spark that passion” in young girls. She works with educators and nonprofit organizations that help expose middle school and high school girls to opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math, the subjects known collectively as STEM.
“One of the reasons that NCCDC is so important is that schools and industry partner to help build a roadmap for cyber careers,” Maclin said. “It also lets students experience a day-in-the-life of a cyber professional. Students who compete in NCCDC really have an advantage and as such, are highly sought after.”
NCCDC, now in its 11th year, is the world series of college cyber defense competitions. Presented by Raytheon, it provides college students from across the country the opportunity test their skills at protecting a network against cyber threats.
The competition is staged like a real business; to win, students must keep a virtual business running while fending off constant attacks. Qualifying and state rounds lead to 10 different regional level competitions across the nation. The winners of the regionals compete at the national championship.
Lawrence agrees that NCCDC can help students plan their cyber careers, and suggests girls find a community or program that respects and values them as an asset. She also said that having a thick skin helps.
“When somebody tells me I can’t do something,” she said, “I consider that motivation.”
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