For the past 10 years, New York University's Polytechnic Institute has run a competition called Cyber Security Awareness Week. Students compete in CSAW to find flaws in various websites' security measures, and exploit those flaws to gain access to the sensitive information stored within.
The National Security Agency (NSA) has been known to recruit talent from the CSAW competitors, as do several other government agencies and technology companies.
But professors at NYU Polytech noticed a glaring trend among the students that applied to CSAW: Almost all of them were male. Last year, of the 150 finalists who came to New York City, two were women.
Why is this important, you ask?
The invisible half
"Security is not a problem that can be solved by technology. It needs people. It needs highly skilled people," said Nasir Memon, a professor of computer science and engineering at NYU Polytech. "You can’t just [install] a box and say 'I’m secure'; you need people continually monitoring, understanding, because new threats are emerging all the time," Memon told Tom's Guide.
"So once you realize there’s a shortage, and you see that you’re not tapping into half the population, then you're definitely playing a losing game," Memon continued. "You need to somehow tap into [that half] and get more women into cybersecurity. [So NYU] started looking at … how can we address this problem."
Demand for cybersecurity experts is enormously high; according to some statistics, the field has a 0 percent unemployment rate.
Some in the field contend that, for whatever reason, women aren't receiving the same pro-computer science messaging that men are, and even when they do, they often don't respond to it.
"There are a lot of theories for why this is," said Phyllis Frankl, a professor of Computer Science and Engineering at NYU Polytech. "You've got boys playing video games more, just getting more comfortable with the technology, and tending to just feel more confident when there's something challenging. And when it doesn't work, they don't blame themselves as much. The theory is that women, [when something doesn't work] internalize [the problem] and say 'oh I must not be good at this.'"
Further, Frankl suggested that the way tech-savvy women are presented in TV shows, movies and other media also affects women's perception of the field. "There's so much in the culture of these TV shows where girls who are more [science, technology, engineering and math] oriented are portrayed as being the geeky outcast."
Whatever the reason, NYU Poly decided to do something about it. As part of the college's STEMNOW summer program, which is designed to engage middle- and high-school students in science, technology, engineering and math (collectively known as STEM), the school organized a two-week cybersecurity course specifically designed for high-school girls.
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The class is partially sponsored by the NSA. Aside from running the top-secret-no-longer cyberespionage program known as PRISM that former contractor Edward Snowden leaked to the press on June 6, the NSA sponsors many programs across the United States designed to encourage Americans into entering engineering and technology careers.
"This class is jointly funded by the NSA, but we're not out there analyzing people's phone records," Frankl joked.
Memon explained that increasing private citizens' cybersecurity savvy is in the NSA's best interests: "They want to see more universities teach cybersecurity, not just for [their own hiring needs] but just to get security professionals hired across the whole nation," said Memon. "If private industry's [cybersecurity capabilities] go up, the whole system goes up in terms of defenses."