The Untold History of Women in Cybersecurity

Karen Austin
CEO   United States Cybersecurity Magazine

In the past, women’s role in the tech industry has been underrepresented, however, women have long been active in information security.  Their contributions are often overlooked and under-appreciated. Perhaps because women’s stories aren’t told as often as men.  Many cybersecurity professionals are unaware that women have been shaping and protecting our data for decades.  Despite making up half of the population, a recent study revealed that only 24 percent of women have careers in cybersecurity.  It is fact indeed that there have been several notable female figures throughout history who made significant contributions to cybersecurity without nearly as much fanfare as their male counterparts, so let’s take a closer look at some of these women whose inventions helped to secure what has become one of today’s most important industries.

Joan Clarke

Clarke was a British mathematician and codebreaker during World War II, pioneering techniques for breaking German ciphers.  She worked at Bletchley Park on breaking codes generated by Enigma machines, eventually developing Alan Turing’s bombe technology to aid in deciphering complex Nazi messages.  Despite her immense contributions to cybersecurity, Clarke’s accomplishments were largely ignored until recently.  Joan Clarke passed away in 1986.  In 2013, she was posthumously awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for her work as a cryptanalyst.

Ada Lovelace

In 1843, Ada Lovelace became an assistant to inventor Charles Babbage.  She was only 19 years old at the time and had no formal training in computer science, but she wrote what is considered to be one of history’s first computer programs.  This program helped Babbage design a machine called the Analytical Engine—a computer designed to run other programs automatically. Her work with Babbage led her to become one of cybersecurity’s most important pioneers. The Co-Founder of Wired magazine, Kevin Kelly, once said that Ada Lovelace invented much of computer science; there are more lines of code written in languages that she created than there are lines of code written in C++ or Java or JavaScript or Python combined.

Susan Landau

In 1977, Landau graduated from MIT with a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics and Computer Science. With few women entering computer science programs at that time, Landau bucked convention and made her way into a male-dominated field.  She joined Xerox PARC’s System Development Lab shortly after graduating and was recruited by John Whitaker to work on Blue Brain, an initiative to reverse engineer a rat brain neuron-by-neuron to better understand human neural networks. It was there she met Marvin Minsky who encouraged her to pursue graduate studies in neuroscience at Brandeis University.  While completing her doctorate, she also worked part-time for BBN Technologies developing software for DARPA.  In 1986, Landau returned to academia when she accepted a position teaching computer science at Tufts University.  It wasn’t until 1988 that she left academia for good and became director of information security research at Sun Microsystems Laboratories.  There she began studying cryptography and network security.

Dorothy Denning

Even though Dorothy Denning was formally introduced to computers through a summer job at IBM when she was 16, it wasn’t until after she earned her Ph.D. that she took on cybersecurity as her full-time career, later joining the Naval Security Group and establishing a group focused on computer security. She went on to found Georgetown University’s Department of Computer Science and spearheaded research for several organizations.  In 1983, she became one of only two women to be elected as Fellows of the National Academy of Engineering.  The other?  Grace Hopper—the woman who coined debugging and compiler.  Clearly, these women were on to something big.

Valerie Thomas and NASA’s Cybersecurity Program

Valerie Thomas led NASA’s cybersecurity program from 1989 to 1993, making her one of few women with a leadership role in cybersecurity at that time.  In that role, she helped develop protocols for NASA computers and became an advocate for women interested in cybersecurity careers. Her efforts culminated with her work on Planetary Defense: Protecting Earth from Asteroids and Comets –– a book she co-authored about ways to prevent an asteroid collision with Earth.  She passed away in 2016 after a battle with cancer.  To honor her contributions to cybersecurity, Congress awarded her posthumously with the Department of Commerce Gold Medal Award in 2017.

A Brief Overview of Women in Cybersecurity

The history of women in cybersecurity has been marked by numerous important milestones, including some that date back to when cyber was just a word used to describe anything pertaining to computer science.  While many are familiar with names like Ada Lovelace, Susan Landau and Dorothy Denning, there are scores more who have gone on to achieve great things within one of today’s fastest-growing industries. In fact, according to data from (ISC)2, women make up nearly 24 percent of all information security professionals. However, it wasn’t always that way; while women were key players in early computing, they were often overlooked or left out of the history books entirely.  

Why There Are So Few Women in CyberSecurity

Women have made their mark on virtually every other professional field, so why do they remain such a tiny part of one of today’s most exciting career opportunities? Although fewer women than men pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) studies in college, women make up half or more of graduates with degrees in biology, pharmacy, and veterinary science. Women now earn more than 40 percent of all computer science degrees—including 46 percent at colleges where women outnumber men.  So, what gives? Why are women so underrepresented in cybersecurity? The answer lies not only in recruitment but also retention.  Women leave jobs for many reasons, including lack of advancement opportunity and limited flexibility to balance work and family responsibilities. The good news is that there are steps companies can take to improve retention rates among women such as provide flexible work options. To attract female candidates to begin with, you need to show them how your company will help them achieve a healthy work-life balance.

Conclusion – Where Do We Go from Here?

When it comes to cybersecurity, women are a minority – but their contributions to cybersecurity have been vital.  The role of women in cybersecurity has changed as technology has evolved. It’s an exciting time for women working in cybersecurity and women will only continue to make progress and breakthroughs. The hope is that women continue to get involved with cybersecurity on all levels: as professionals, students, teachers, mentors, and volunteers. We need more women to move forward into a future that is increasingly dependent on technology. Women bring unique skillsets and perspectives to any field they enter – especially one like cybersecurity which relies so heavily on human interaction. This is why diversity matters so much when you’re building teams or looking at problems through new lenses. To become successful, in any field, it requires hard work and dedication – no matter what your gender identity may be.

The Future of Women in Cybersecurity: There is still much work to be done when it comes to women in cybersecurity.  While women have made great strides over the past few decades, we still lag behind our male counterparts when it comes to opportunities for advancement. According to recent statistics, about 10% of information security professionals are women – and fewer than 1% hold executive positions within organizations.

It is our hope through the United States Cybersecurity Magazine that we inspire women to enter the Cybersecurity industry!

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Karen Austin

Karen Austin

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