Young women curious about a career in cybersecurity have a glass ceiling-smashing ally in Ashley Podhradsky, D.Sc., Vice President for Research and Economic Development at Dakota State University (DSU) in Madison, South Dakota.
After joining the faculty of DSU, one of the first initiatives she pursued was to double the number of women faculty in computer science (to two!). From there, she began a creative outreach initiative to inspire young girls who may have never envisioned a career in cybersecurity.
Podhradsky’s first hurdle: making women role models more visible. As many women leaders have pointed out, “You can’t be it if you can’t see it.” Podhradsky was often the only woman in the classroom (both as a student and professor), in the boardroom and in the computer security workplace.
“I knew I wanted to do whatever I could to help bring in more voices to solve the challenging problems that we have in cybersecurity,” she says.
Grants received from the American Association of University Women, the National Center for Women and Information Technology, and the National Security Agency helped provide hands-on classroom activities and start a free summer camp. Podhradsky also went on to co-found CybHER—a program at DSU dedicated to promoting STEM among girls in middle school.
“Now, in the fall of 2021, we have hired 14 students who are working for us 20 hours a week,” she adds.
From 2013 to 2019, Podhradsky’s efforts contributed to a phenomenal 595% increase in the number of female students in DSU’s computer science, cyber operations and network security programs.
Even girls who may not ultimately choose a career in cybersecurity can benefit from exposure to security safeguards. Realizing how easy it is to retrieve “deleted” images, for example, could help teens think twice about the long-term consequences of questionable posts to social media. Being computer savvy can also enhance other professional choices. For instance, empowered professionals are less likely to click on an infected email that may cause a cyber incident at organizations.
“From retail, to medical, to law, to healthcare, to basic business, we need people who can communicate cybersecurity. We need people who understand the risk that new technology brings into the business. Every field has some cyber component, so you want those people to be more aware of the attacks that can occur,” Podhradsky says.
Podhradsky says creating something like CybHER just for girls can help boost their confidence, but that doesn’t mean they have to “pink it and shrink it”—turn the topic into something “girly” and less substantial. Instead, it has to be something that they can relate to. In middle school, girls often struggle to “fit in.” Appealing to their skill, empathy and doggedness is therefore crucial.
“By the time a girl reaches high school, she has already decided whether she's going to pursue a career in STEM or not,” Podhradsky says. Middle school is the window of opportunity that can’t be squandered. A major challenge in recruiting more girls in STEM is countering some unflattering images of the computer security world.
“The ‘hacker in a hoodie’ in mom's basement is a common stereotype. But the teamwork, the big picture, the ability to continue on, even though you don't have an instant answer, goes all the way back to codebreakers in World War I and II. For them to start seeing that women have been doing this for nearly 100 years and have been contributing quietly to the security and the success of our country, it's important for them to recognize that” she explains.
There is also a darker reason that may account for why fewer women go into cybersecurity. Misogyny, intimidation and even death threats are frequently directed toward women in the heavily male-dominated field. While Podhradsky has experienced this in her own career, she has not let it discourage her resolve.
“I looked at a lot of that as noise. Early on, in some high-level national publications, I had people who would point out different comments and threats about me. But I haven't looked at a comment from any media, or any video, or story online in 10 years.”
She tells her students in these scenarios they can choose to react and respond, or instead, use their energy to keep their eyes on the prize and keep doing good things.
AAAS recognized Podhradsky’s efforts to welcome more women into cybersecurity careers by naming her as one of the 125 inaugural AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassadors. Using that honor as a platform to expand CybHER’s mission, she has worked with her local school district to create a $10,000 lending library of connected toys and robots that kids can use to learn to code and explore other cyber activities. A long-term goal of hers is to see the CybHER program go nationwide.
“What we're doing here in South Dakota isn't unique or special,” she notes. “I think anyone could do it. We've created a process, we've created an approach, and we've refined the approach and we know what works. And taking those best practices and figuring out how to scale our [DSU] initiatives so that girls across the country can understand is what this is about.”