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Let’s Talk Science and the Royal Society of Canada have partnered to provide Globe and Mail readers with relevant coverage about issues that affect us all – from education to the impact of leading-edge scientific discoveries

Craig White is an Education Specialist with the Professional Learning team at Let’s Talk Science.

The emergence of e-commerce platforms, the Internet of Things, Blockchain and other disruptive technologies, have made cybersecurity a fast-growing career sector. Technical skills are required but many young people, and young women, in particular, are missing out on opportunities because of misunderstandings and lack of support.

The value of the cybersecurity market is expected to grow exponentially over the next few years in large part due to the increase in ransomware attacks and investment in the necessary infrastructure to prevent them. As a result, employment opportunities are booming. The Canadian Centre for Cyber Security (CES) states that the number of jobs for cyber security professionals in Canada is growing by 7% every year and that worldwide; there are currently 3.5 million vacant positions. With so many openings, it would appear that anyone with experience in cybersecurity can find immediate employment.

Cybersecurity jobs are left wanting

Misconceptions about careers in cybersecurity hold many people back. These range from the notion that you have to be a math or computer genius (you don’t), to the notion that pay is low (the average annual salary in Canada is $97,000). It is also untrue that cybersecurity has a narrow career path with little room for advancement (there are numerous career pathways available), and that you need lots of experience to land your first job (there are entry positions and on-the-job training available).

Closing the Cybersecurity Gender Gap

Generally, young women do not go into this male-dominated field and there are few role models for them to follow. Fortunately, there are initiatives that seek to close the gender gap in computer technology and cybersecurity careers. In a blog post by Andra Zahari, she describes 35 initiatives aimed at getting more women to explore cybersecurity as a potential career path. While initiatives such as this are important, and are achieving gains, only eight of these initiatives specifically listed girls below post-secondary school age as a target audience.

To encourage young women to consider careers in sectors where they are underrepresented, we have to understand that stereotypes and biases about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) form early in life. We can flip negative stereotypes around by giving young girls opportunities to explore and develop their interests. We can engage them in STEM activities that help them develop problem-solving and decision-making skills. We can encourage them to develop hypotheses and analyze problems by figuring out how to break them down into manageable parts and identify which parts to tackle first. We can help them develop resilience so that, when they do experience a challenging situation, they won’t assume they are not “smart enough” and give up. Most of all, we can help them see STEM as something they can do that’s worthwhile doing both now and as a future career.

Gender stereotypes form between the ages of five and seven so it’s important to ensure there are role models and programs available starting in preschool. Organizations such as Girls Who Code, Canada Learning Code, and Hackergal offer programs to teach school-age girls digital literacy and coding skills. Other organizations that support women entering cybersecurity careers include Women Cybersecurity Society, Women in Tech World, and the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology. Individuals who work with groups like these become important role models for young participants.

Let’s Talk Science offers a variety of STEM programs including free Professional Learning programs to help teachers, at all grade levels, improve their digital literacy and coding abilities. Teachers can then work with the children in their classrooms, using both offline and online strategies, to help them develop digital and computational skills and understandings. Let’s Talk Science also provides access to “virtual role models” through their STEM careers resource collection.

It’s never too early to spark an interest in STEM and parents can support their daughters’ interest in a number of ways (Glanzberg, 2019 and NCWIT, 2021). You can share books that provide examples of women working in STEM and encourage hands-on play using puzzles and building toys. Celebrate a growth mindset when it comes to learning and encourage persistence when working on a problem by asking, “What did you learn?” to help your child recognize that we are not born knowing how to do things; we learn how to do it. Try exploring technology, solving problems and learning to code together using instructional websites and videos. After you spark an interest, you can follow through by staying involved. There are many social factors that impact your child’s career perceptions. However, it is clear that parents can impact their child’s career choices by supporting their interests at a young age.

Remember, if they can see it, they can be it!