01/15/2013 06:02 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2013

Women Fighting Cyber Crime


My daughter's middle school was recently hit with a wave of cyber bullying. In order to deal with the issue with the students, the school held an assembly which included Tracy Webb from the Los Angeles City Attorney's office, LAPD officers and others. My daughter was impressed by the array of experts sent in to explain the laws and ramifications of cyber bullying. Prior to the assembly, she had joined with her friends in a bit of activism and detective work. When the insulting and offending pages showed up on her Instagram and Facebook, she posted that this was mean, the girls being targeted were nice and the kids creating the pages should get a life and stop harassing people.

She and her friends tried to figure out who the bullies were. They tried to trace who created the pages through Facebook and by asking around. They also kept looking around during the assembly to see who looked guilty. According to her, they came up empty-handed, but she felt sure the woman from the city attorney's office could track down the culprits. This got me thinking.

I thought it was great that the rep from the city attorney's office was a woman. So did my daughter. It showed a woman in a powerful, tech-related position, and I could see my daughter's wheels spinning. Cybersecurity is an issue we all deal with through creating passwords on accounts, work safeguards for information, virus protection and protecting our financial interactions online. Everyone I know has been hacked at some point, to some degree. It's something we've come to live with and do our best to avoid.

I started wondering who the people are that protect us from cyber invasion on personal and institutional levels. My search revealed the company mile2, among others. They are a private firm working with the government and corporations and offering certifications in cybersecurity. Launched after the events of 9/11, mile2 is committed to learning to "think like an attacker." Phrases like digital forensics, penetration and incident-handling engineers litter the website and the course descriptions.

In this new industry and like much of the tech world, it's dominated by men, but mile2 stresses a goal of gender equality. It seems they've got their work cut out for them. A 2009 report out of SUNY Buffalo cites that just 13 percent of cybersecurity professionals are women, and figures for Europe and Asia are lower. The report goes on to list some of the impediments to women's success in this field. There are the familiar refrains of needing an emphasis on STEM education for women, cultural biases and limited mentors at university level and above. Also familiar is the balance of work and familial obligations that many professional women struggle with. The report describes some social/institutional barriers for women as follows:

In the workplace, more women than men claim to experience institutional barriers. Many blame IT's "hacker culture" and social expectations for isolating women from IT. The hacker culture is prevalent in the IT world, leading to exceptionally long hours, late nights, and highly focused, almost obsessive behavior. This male-oriented culture raises concerns about safety and security for women working in computer laboratories alone at night and on weekends. The culture also plays an important role in producing male domination in higher education in computer science, which in turn, influences women's position within the computing field.

[See complete article for citations.]

I can't help but think of Stieg Larsson's character Lisbeth Salander, from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a hacker and cyber expert extraordinaire. She didn't mind the danger or late nights, but then again she's portrayed as quite unique and doesn't have a family. I'm not going to suggest my middle schooler read Larsson's books for quite a while, but I like knowing there's a high-profile literary and movie character out there who kicks ass and rounds up the bad guys. I guess it remains to be seen if the identities of the cyber bullies from my daughter's school are discovered. Or maybe my daughter will join forces with a company like mile2 and be a trailblazer with a career in digital forensics.