The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) asks, “Is cyber a man’s world?” It’s a provocative statement to promote cybersecurity careers to women, but why should we be asking this question today? Surely cyber and computing careers are for everyone. So why are many women tuning out?
Today’s working wisdom is that diversity benefits teams, but there’s slow progress in getting more women to join technology-led careers and keeping them on board.
Many assume male-majority teams have always been the norm in computing and security technologies. But looking back, women have been at the center of creating the computing technology we use today.
Human computers: The first data scientists
The word ‘computer,’ coined in 1613, was first used for humans who performed computation. Many of the best were women: Nicole-Reine Etable de la Brière Lepaute helped predict Halley’s Comet’s return in 1758. A century later, Maria Mitchell plotted the planet Venus’s motion, earning an astronomy professorship.
When the US Civil War ended in 1865, war widows needed to support themselves. Women were hired as human computers. Agnes Meyer Driscoll, known as ‘Madame X,’ led the decoding of Japanese ciphers and manuals for the US during both world wars.
Women solved the ultimate Enigma
Britain’s Alan Turing is famed for cracking the Nazi’s ‘Enigma’ code during World War II, but it wasn’t the work of a lone genius. Of Bletchley Park’s codebreaking team, 75 percent were women.
Turing’s colleague Joan Clarke worked out how to speed up decoding double-encrypted messages, but unlike many of her male colleagues, her technique wasn’t named after her. Clarke’s job title didn’t match her expertise – there was no ‘senior female cryptanalyst’ role, so she was given the job title ‘linguist.’
Turing said human computers are “supposed to be following fixed rules; he has no authority to deviate from them in any detail.” Women’s subservience in society played to this ideal, but Turing’s codebreakers succeeded because they used the same abilities security analysts use today: Logic, methodology and data analysis.
Painstaking calculation devalued as ‘kilo-girls’
The dominance of women as human computers cloaked an inconvenient truth. Their work was on average better, and they were cheaper than male counterparts. The Harvard Computers, mockingly called “Pickering’s harem,” supported Edward Pickering at Harvard Observatory in the 1880s, doing work men and scholars found tedious, unpaid or at a fraction of what men earned.
The term ‘kilo-girl’ came about in the 1940s to describe complex calculations seen as ‘women’s work.’ We measure computing power in gigabytes or terabytes, but they measured kilo-girl hours – one kilo-girl was a thousand hours of painstaking calculations. The kilo-girls work was far from trivial: In the 1950s, Gladys West’s calculations for the US Naval Weapons Laboratory led to GPS’s development.
Computing becomes a man’s world
By the 1960s, human computing had given way to machines. In the 1940s programmers were mostly women, but by the end of the 1960s women made up 30 to 50 percent. Women were still paid less and few were promoted to leadership.
The perception computing is for men and boys started at home. A 1984 report showed 1 in 5 girls used a computer at home, compared with 1 in 2 boys. Female computer science graduates peaked in 1984 at 37 percent, before steadily declining. Academic Wendy Hall says by the 1990s, men led professional computing and computers “were sold as toys for boys.”
Ten women from computer history to know
Ada Lovelace invents the first algorithm
Publishing the first algorithm in 1843, Ada Lovelace is said to be the world’s first computer programmer. She realized Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine could do more than calculation: Combining mathematics and analysis. Ada Lovelace Day celebrates women’s achievements in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) and encourages young women to follow her path.
Hedy Lamarr averts the Cuban Missile Crisis
1940s Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr co-invented a frequency-hopping method to control torpedoes remotely without the risk of signal tracking or jamming. Naval ships were using the technology by the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. It later became part of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
Grace Hopper invents new ways to code
Grace Hopper created the first compiler for a programming language. She programmed and wrote a comprehensive manual for an electro-mechanical computer based on Babbage and Lovelace’s Analytical Engine, Harvard Mark I. She wasn’t credited for this but is widely miscredited for coining the term ‘bug’ when a moth caused her computer to malfunction. She later developed computer programming language COBOL (common business-oriented language) and invented new symbolic ways to write code.
Margaret Hamilton took us to the moon
The 1969 moon landing wouldn’t have happened without Margaret Hamilton, who programmed Apollo’s flight software.It needed more ‘human computing:’ After Hamilton’s programming, seamstresses hardwired the code by threading copper wire through magnetic rings.
Elizabeth “Jake” Feinler organized the internet
At Stanford University in 1969, Elizabeth “Jake” Feinler created the first internet directory, ARPANET, alongside mostly female staff. By the early 1970s, they’d put together the first WHOIS directory of web domain ownership. Feinler suggested categorizing domains by where the computer was, like .edu domains for educational institutions.
Women who built new audiences for technology
Organizing, building relationships and human factors – often thought of as female traits – are critical in computing projects’ success and creating demand for new services. Joan Ball set up the first computer-aided dating service in 1964. In 1988, Stacy Horn started a community in New York, the East Coast Hang Out (ECHO,) where users could chat online. Game designer Brenda Laurel‘s research showed girls wanted to play more interactive character computer games. In the 1990s, her company Purple Moon developed a best-selling game series inspired by that research.
In the 1970s, Joan Margaret Winters researched how software should consider human factors for IBM’s SHARE project. When you see the iconic trash symbol on your Apple Mac, thank Susan Kare. She worked with Steve Jobs to design its original icons.
Today’s influencers for women in cybersecurity
When young people see people who look like them succeed in a career, they’re more likely to choose it. For women considering going into cybersecurity, there’s no shortage of inspiration.
Parisa Tabriz, the self-styled “Security Princess” (official title: Director of Engineering,) runs Google’s security testing labs. Eva Galperin, Director of Cybersecurity at Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF,) fights for digital privacy, security and civil liberties.
Eva Galperin helps women secure their devices against stalkers and spying ex-partners.
Rebecca Bace‘s threat intrusion detection work at the US National Security Agency contributed to famous hacker Kevin Mitnick‘s arrest. The cybersecurity community nicknamed her ‘Den Mother’ for her vital mentorship and advice and posthumously inducted her into the 2019 Cyber Security Hall of Fame.
Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE creates skills training and certification to encourage young women to pursue cyber careers through her company Stemettes. Jane Frankland, security entrepreneur and author of InSecurity: Why a failure to attract and retain women in cybersecurity is making us all less safe, helps the C-Suite (senior management) attract and retain women in cybersecurity.
Attracting and retaining more women in IT careers
In the UK, the proportion of women in IT has stayed at 16 percent for the past decade. But in many countries, such as those in Central Asia, women make up nearly half of the IT workforce. It’s the gender-equality paradox: In countries with less gender equality, educated women seek careers with more income security, while in countries with better gender equality, women avoid careers said to discriminate against women.
There are green shoots of progress. Kaspersky’s 2021 Women in tech report surveyed women in four global regions. Encouragingly, 57 percent say gender equality is improving in their organization. Despite this, 44 percent think male colleagues progress faster. COVID-19 has brought one step forward: 1 in 2 think remote working has improved gender equality – but 60 percent say they’re now doing “most” of the housework and homeschooling.
In the report, Dr. Ronda Zelezny-Green, Co-Founder and Director of Panoply Digital, says change is slow because “too much activity around gender equality in IT focuses on one-off gimmicks and band-aid solutions that can be spotlighted in the press, instead of focusing on female employees and actions that will make a sustained difference in their professional lives.”
Dr. Zelezny-Green thinks we should entice more women into the industry by creating new products and services for women. Widely-reported diversity problems with Artificial intelligence (AI) could be seen as an opportunity: “There’s huge potential in telling the stories of Timnit Gebreu and Joy Buolamwini, black women leading the charge for more ethical and inclusive AI design. These stories make inroads in IT and tech roles where women are currently underrepresented.”
In a prosperous future, we won’t need to ask, “Is cyber a man’s world?” or “Where are the women in cyber?” They’re not hiding under the desk. They’re making change, but in another industry. We’re on the right path, but it’s a long journey ahead. With more women, we can better create products that represent users and benefit from a gender-equal computing industry.