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Women in cybersecurity

by Chris van 't Hof Blog 9 Jun 2021

You might have noticed: hackers often tend to be men. I find that somewhat weird; if everyone uses IT devices, why does only one half of the population concern itself with its security? It’s a pity when I encounter a whole line-up of men at cybersecurity conferences. On top of that, if there happens to be a woman present, some people can’t keep themselves from making unsolicited comments.

Thankfully this has caught the attention of the industry itself, a majority has realized that we would be better off if we had more female colleagues and there are many initiatives within the industry currently working on recruiting and involving more women in cybersecurity. In fact, it’s not only about focusing on the shortage of women in the industry, but also paying attention to the women who already work in IT.

Let’s look back at the history of IT for a moment. The first, real programmer was a woman named, Augustus Ada Byron, who was commonly known as ‘Ada Lovelance’. At the end of the 18th century, she wrote a program for the ‘analytical machine’ of British mathematician and philosopher, Charles Babbage. Her program transformed the mechanical operations of the machine into a language. Ada predicted that machines of this sort would be able create images, compose music and support scientific endeavours. Unfortunately, Babbage’s imagination wasn’t as far ahead as that of Ada, since he claimed that the machine would be nothing more than a ‘regular calculator’. Clearly, Ada’s visions were way ahead of her time. Also, later during the era of the punch card systems - the predecessors of modern computers – they were operated mainly by women.

That picture is different today. According to Eurostat, in 2019, only 16% of people working in IT in the Netherlands were women; an amount just below the European average. If we are looking at the number of women in IT-related studies, then the Netherlands finds itself at the bottom with only 8%. However, it is to be noted that countries that often aren’t recognize as emancipated have the highest number of women participating in IT-related studies, this applies to: Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia and Latvia. Even Italy and Greece score substantially better than the Netherlands. Is the Netherlands not as emancipated as we thought? What about the gender balance among hackers? Exact statistics are unfortunately not available. But if you work in IT-security, you really wouldn’t need these statistics to prove a point: you can see that there are few women in the sector.

The consensus is that there could and should be more. Cybersecurity needs more people, along with the fact that a more diverse team solves problems better together. And of course, because it is way more fun that way! To demonstrate that there is no other way around this, we organized a special night for women at Hack Talk on 12th of March 2019, named: Hacksters. It is also intended to be a crash course for men: how to associate with women in IT. Since I’m also a man, we decided to do a chained interview: a one-on and one-off type of conversation, this way we all get a chance to interview each other. We started with the ‘makers’: an agile test coach and a security engineer. Then we moved on to the ‘breakers’: a pentester and a malware analysts. After that the women in power – those responsible for bringing everything together, a Chief Information Security Officers (CISO). We ended with an award ceremony with the Pink Lock: the prize for the cybersecurity company with the most women in employment.

Interested in more interviews with (female) hackers? You can read them in the book ‘Cyberellende was nog nooit zo leuk’ by Chris van ‘t Hof.

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