Young women may be the answer to cybersecurity’s skills gap

Cybersecurity learning opportunities are patchy for girls, Anne-Marie Imafidon has found. She started Stemettes to help smooth their path into tech careers.

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If there’s a regular path into tech, Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE didn’t take it. A child prodigy, she was the youngest girl ever to pass A-level (high school) computing. At 20, she graduated UK’s Oxford University with a Masters in Maths and Computer Science.

Anne-Marie’s inspiration to turn her hand to social enterprise came from a stark realization. Attending a work conference in the US, she decided she wanted to change things for women who came after her. “It turned out to be a massive ‘women in tech’ conference. I had a bit of an epiphany. I’d always been a girl and had always been into tech, and had never noticed that was something strange,” she explains. “So I started Stemettes as a response to that, to ensure my unborn daughters could be what they want to be, and thrive, because society depends on it.”

What Stemettes is changing

Stemettes work across the UK, Ireland and beyond to inspire and support young women into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers. It includes a content platform full of inspiration, free events and programs such as mentoring, school holiday programs and regular clubs – provided online in the age of COVID-19, in person at other times. “Our ethos across is it’s always free, always fun and there’s always food,” Anne-Marie adds.

The idea the tech industry needs more women and girls might seem a little old-hat in 2020. Much has been achieved, but women make up only 10 percent of the global cybersecurity workforce. The cybersecurity skills gap shows there’s no room to let any interested young person go without the chance to get more involved.

Stemettes has created cybersecurity courses and opportunities for young women where schools aren’t yet catering for their interests. Along with British tech skills training provider QA, they’ve developed certification academies so young women between 17 and 25 can gain professional cybersecurity qualifications over half-term.

The skills gap is more complex than you think

Anne-Marie thinks there are a few elements to the cyber-skills gap problem across the industry. Understanding them can help inform where and how teaching skills to girls can have most impact. First, there’s a lack of focus on basic digital skills across the board. Second, many more people need expert cyber-skills to build the industry and meet its demand. Third, there needs to be more focus on cybersecurity services for small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) using digital technologies.

“There’s a gap in not just cyber-awareness for SMBs, but also cybersecurity services and advice aimed at and priced for them. When I was younger, there were a lot of people, and social media agencies, who’d go to their local high street and say, “Hey, barber, pay me each month and I’ll run your Facebook and your Instagram.” There’s a cottage industry around that, but we don’t have that for cybersecurity. We’ve ended up having a lot of vulnerabilities because people aren’t following basic cyber-hygiene.”

It’s bigger than just SMBs turning their businesses digital, though. Anne-Marie says, “There’s so much in building systems, even just for us to be able to vote electronically in the future. There’s a lot that needs to be developed in the cyberspace just to keep us safe. We don’t have enough people with these skills to work in these companies and run these start-ups.”

Why teaching girls can be the solution

In creating the Stemettes Certification Academy, Anne-Marie saw an opportunity for girls not only to be better trained in cyber-skills, but be able to jump into the profession armed with expertise and qualifications.
stemettes stem training“We spotted from the girls we work with that the provision in the normal education system for anyone who wants to be in computer science is patchy. So academically, they’re not able to pursue things they’re interested in, or getting blocked from being able to develop skills they’ll need when working,” Anne-Marie explains. “These girls are learning from real trainers who teach and work professionally in cybersecurity. They’re doing real adult qualifications in cyber to learn the basics, but also to understand their options in cyber.”

For Anne-Marie, Stemettes is playing a role bigger than just filling the current skills gap. “We’re skilling up with real certifications and a generation of new young women who can work in cyber, but even if they choose not to, they take cyber-knowledge into medicine, architecture or other parts of life they touch.”

How should businesses get involved?

Stemettes is proving there’s a high impact from its focus on sharing, upskilling and awareness-raising. What does Anne-Marie think corporates working with technology could be doing?

“They should fund any kind of cyber-awareness, or cyber-skills, programs around them. They need to invest in future skills and skills of their people. They should also open their doors and do as much sharing in the community around them. I get that if you make money from your cyber-knowledge, giving it away for free isn’t the easiest. Still, much is already public in skills frameworks, so they can be part of information dissemination to society. That would be amazing.”

Stemettes is just one organization supporting routes for girls and women into technology. Kaspersky partners with Girls In Tech, a STEM organization for women, and Cyber Starts, its EU campaign to support early talent women which has hosted events in London, UK and Boston, USA with inspiring female industry speakers. It also hosts the Women in cybersecurity Facebook group to support those entering and working in the field.

It might seem like Anne-Marie is asking a lot, but the need for a long-term approach in investing in cyber-skills is ever more pertinent in 2020 as the world demands more, better, faster technology. As she puts it: “It ultimately makes their job easier.”

About authors

Gemma Milne is a technology and science writer who specializes in biotechnology, space, energy, health and quantum computing for publications including Forbes, BBC, The Guardian and Quartz. She is also the co-host of the Science: Disrupt podcast and will soon publish her first book about hype in science and technology. She's a fan of books, powerlifting, travel and the occasional gin and tonic.