Technology and Cybersecurity: a double-edged sword for women
By Gai Brodtmann
In an era in which disruption rules, suggesting we should say no to some innovation could be seen as revolutionary. Because there’s good innovation, there’s bad innovation, and there’s just plain evil innovation. Not all change is progress. But the values that determine what is good, bad and evil are not bound by time and should remain eternal. They are the lights that guide us on an uncharted path, as the stars guided navigators at sea for thousands of years. If they hadn’t been there—and constant—many more adventurous innovators would have foundered on the rocks.
So, in our quest for knowledge, we need to take the time to pause and think about the kind of world we want as we innovate. That means we have to consider the unintended consequences and alternative applications.
And we must ensure women are at the table shaping our technology-dependent future.
Because a tracking device in a key ring can save us from ourselves. But it can also allow a control-freak boyfriend to monitor his girlfriend’s every move.
A doll with a camera can delight your child with its novelty. But it can spy on an abused woman fleeing domestic violence by her estranged partner.
A centralised locking system can secure your home remotely. But it can also imprison you. In its Innovation for gender equality report, UN Women acknowledged that good innovation can be a ‘driver for change’ by accelerating access to opportunities for women across the globe.
But ‘it is increasingly clear that technology and innovation can be rejected; that they can create new, unforeseen problems of their own; and that they do not benefit all equally. Not only are women under-represented across core innovation sectors, including science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but new technology brings risks of bias and possibilities for misuse, creating new human rights challenges for the 21st century.’
Fortunately, the under-representation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and the impact that has on national security, productivity, innovation, research and the economy have been acknowledged by governments, industry and academia.
In Australia, programs now target attracting, retaining and progressing girls and women studying and working in STEM. Peak associations, mentoring groups and ambassadors encourage, support and provide role models for girls and women. Schools and universities offer coding subjects and run hacking competitions. From a cybersecurity perspective, this is all good work that must continue apace, particularly given the massive and well-documented international and national skills shortage—some say crisis—in the sector.
But the challenges of cyberspace are as much, if not more, human than technical. While technical knowledge will always be important, it will be ‘institutional, cultural and social changes that will be most effective in mitigating cyber insecurity. New ways of thinking, new understanding and new strategies to the emerging digital age realities will be vital.’ This will require a workforce with political, social, legal, people and technical skills.
So, to fill the enormous and immediate demand for these skills, we need to think and recruit creatively and laterally so that we harness the full potential of our talent pool and bolster diversity in a dynamic and fast-changing industry.
This seems to be underway, In a survey of more than 300 women in cybersecurity, less than half entered the field through information technology or computer science, coming instead from compliance, psychology, internal audit, entrepreneurship, sales, arts and other backgrounds.
Because of new thinking, understanding and strategies, the dial appears to be shifting on the number of women in cybersecurity, since the alarm was raised when it was found just 11% of the sector was female.
Women now make up 24% of the sector in North America, Latin America and the Asia–Pacific—thanks in part to a new, more inclusive definition of the cybersecurity workforce—and 25% in Australia.
Women now head Australia’s signals intelligence, cybersecurity, cyber research and cybersecurity growth network agencies, to name just some of the female leaders in the sector.
Women have made real gains in cybersecurity in recent years. These wins are important, and they should be celebrated. But we need to keep the pedal firmly to the metal.
We need to continue to address pay gap, systemic bias, recruitment pool, workplace culture, role definition and work–life balance issues. And we need to continue to invest our energies in attracting, retaining and progressing women in STEM and the technical and non-technical fields of cybersecurity.
This is not just an economic and national security imperative. It’s a human rights imperative—to ensure women are liberated by the innovation and technology of the future, not enslaved by it.