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Two companies in Arkansas are working to close the gender gap in cybersecurity — a gap that has always existed on a national scale — and they say exposing young girls to the growing field is the key to getting that done.
The companies are SBS CyberSecurity, which is headquartered in Little Rock and Madison, South Dakota, and Acxiom LLC, which is owned by Interpublic Group of Cos. Inc. of New York but employs about 1,300 in Conway.
SBS has been involved with the CybHer program at Dakota State University in Madison, South Dakota. Aaron Gamewell, president, CEO and managing partner of SBS, and his family also endowed a scholarship at DSU for undergraduate women majoring in cybersecurity.
Gamewell said the firm, he and his family will spend six figures this year on these efforts.
He would like to work more with Arkansas universities and two-year colleges, Gamewell said, but he has partnered with DSU because most of the cybersecurity degree programs in Arkansas are just now getting started and SBS also has a presence in Madison.
Acxiom calls its new initiative Acxiom Women LEAD. (LEAD is an acronym for Leadership Enrichment And Development.)
CybHer is a summer gender diversity program at Dakota State University that has been introducing the field of cybersecurity to middle school girls since 2013. It was created and is led by Ashley Podhradsky and Pam Rowland.
Through the LEAD program, which was established March 8 (International Women’s Day) but formally launched in May, “What we’re trying to do, from a mission perspective, is champion Acxiom women by working to really understand the gender equality challenges that they’re facing and then leverage those learnings to start advocating, to make a more inclusive workspace,” said Melissa Metheny, a vice president of sales and account management at Acxiom.
The company is also involved in introducing tech and cybersecurity to female elementary, middle, high school and college students, said Chief Information Officer Janet Cinfio. One of its most notable partnerships is with the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas, on its Girls of Promise initiative that encourages girls to continue pursuing higher-level science, technology, engineering and math education.
A Career Option
At the heart of all these efforts is the push to show girls and women that cybersecurity is a viable career path.
“Cybersecurity falls into the tech industry category, and young girls weren’t exposed to the industry. If you don’t expose a population to an industry, they can’t envision the opportunities,” Gamewell said.
Cinfio said part of the problem is that there are more men in cybersecurity, so there is a misperception that the field is for men, and that’s not the case.
Podhradsky, an associate dean at DSU, cited another misperception: that cybersecurity professionals work alone and in the dark.
“They don’t realize it is an active and social field. Also, we need initiatives to support lifting women up as role models in cybersecurity,” she said. “It is hard to be something you can’t see, but even harder to be something you had no idea even existed. We need to introduce mentors to middle school girls so they can see women who are leading the way and know they can do it too.”
Rowland, an associate professor at DSU, agreed. She said the gap also exists because girls don’t know the variety of tasks and positions in cybersecurity and there is a lack of mentorship and engagement in the field for students at the middle school age.
All of the professionals concurred on why closing the gender gap is important.
“There are very challenging problems to solve in cybersecurity and we need the best minds available to do it — that includes men and women,” Podhradsky said.
“Diversity of thought is proven to provide better solutions than single individuals or like-minded groups,” Rowland said. “There are 1.8 million job openings in cybersecurity alone in this nation, and women are an untapped resource.”
Cinfio, of Acxiom, added that diversity prompts innovation, and innovation increases profits as well as the respect the community has for a company.
Numbers Show Improvement
The professionals say they’re already seeing improvement in gender diversity within the cybersecurity field.
In the past five years, Rowland said, the percentage of cybersecurity professionals in the United States who are women has moved from 11% to 20%.
At Dakota State University, 40% of new cybersecurity students are women, and there has been a 463% increase since 2013 in the number of women majoring in cyber operations. There has also been a 400% increase in women computer science majors and a 38% increase in women network operations majors.
So when the university asked SBS to increase its sponsorship of CybHer summer camps in 2016, the firm agreed. It recently sponsored 10 female students from DSU to attend the national WiCys conference. The conference offers students the opportunity to hear “world-class speakers” who are successful women currently working in cybersecurity, according to Gamewell. WiCys is a nonprofit organization for women in cybersecurity.
The CybHer program itself has held many more events (100-plus) and boasts that more than 14,000 girls have been aided by the education and mentoring it offers. “SBS uses these events as opportunities to show the girls real world scenarios with hacking demonstrations and hands-on activities to explore the world of cybersecurity,” Gamewell said. “It’s very gratifying to see the interest and enthusiasm as they get a glimpse into the fun part of our industry.”
Acxiom’s LEAD effort is newer and smaller in scale, but already 500 associates are involved in it, and an event has been held every month since May. Metheny said the company would like to see 650 associates involved in LEAD by the end of the year.
There’s been one “external” LEAD event in New York. It placed clients and partners of Acxiom on panels with Acxiom associates to discuss diversity, inclusion and “breaking the glass ceilings.” But most of its events have been “internal” for Acxiom associates. One of those has been held each month since May, on topics like unconscious bias and digital skills needed to stay relevant in the tech industry.
Making a Difference
Gamewell also shared a bit about what SBS is doing internally. “I’m very passionate about gender diversity. My daughter was in the fifth grade when the school advised us in a letter that girls would no longer be allowed to lead certain events or perform certain duties due to the religious doctrine of the church that sponsored the school,” he said. He removed his daughter from the school after that. An adult now, she works for SBS.
“The letter and the fact that they were telling girls that they couldn’t lead sent me over the top. I vowed to make a difference in the places that I worked and the teams that I led to make sure that the gender gap does not exist where I was a leader,” he said.
Gamewell joined SBS in late 2015 and said he asked each division to look for opportunities to hire a diverse team with a focus on females and minorities that are typically underrepresented in the industry. “That focus has paid huge dividends in ways that will be long lasting to our company and the clients that we serve. Diversity in a company brings different emotions, thought processes and many other positive attributes of the team members that we have hired.”
At the end of 2015, 18.06% of the firm’s employees were female. Now, 27% of the firm’s team is female, with women accounting for 25% of its executive team. “We are very proud of where we are today and we know we have much more work to do in the creation of a more culturally diverse team,” he said.
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