News & Events

Placing Girls and Women at the Forefront of Cybersecurity

By Lauren Bean Buitta, Kyla Guru, Claire Smith, and Megan Stifel

Recently, President Biden emphasized the need to better prepare the U.S. for challenges posed by cybersecurity and to better educate and train future generations of cybersecurity professionals. While the pandemic has clearly demonstrated the need for solutions that anticipate unexpected security threats, recent higher profile hacks such as the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack reveal our shortcomings. 

America and the world are confronting cybersecurity threats that obliterate the long-standing boundaries between physical and digital domains, domestic and foreign policy, and personal and national security. Yet people—particularly girls and women—remain undervalued in U.S. cybersecurity. This lack of equity in our cybersecurity strategy must be addressed today. 

The pandemic has threatened the real progress of women throughout the global society and economy. Some women have seen their physical and economic security reduced, if not eliminated. A successful cybersecurity path forward must not prioritize systems over people, but should place girls and women at the forefront of a reimagined strategy.

Cybersecurity is often thought of as the protection of digital systems from unauthorized access and use, commonly defined with the “CIA Triad,” or the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of information. But cybersecurity is an ecosystem that also poses new and unique challenges to girls, women, and marginalized communities. We need to devote an actionable commitment of time, attention, funding, and policy to ensure that digital threats to girls’ and women’s online engagement such as disinformation and harassment do not impede their social, educational, and civic engagement

In short, cybersecurity isn’t just about protecting systems, but creating an environment in which everyone can safely live their digital lives. A cybersecurity strategy should prioritize populations who might otherwise be underrepresented in board rooms, situation rooms, and even classrooms. 

Reimagining cybersecurity sits at the core of President Biden’s new call to action. In the Administration’s “Interim National Security Strategy,” President Biden emphasizes the need to “commit ourselves to revitalizing our own democracy” and “ensure our workforce represents the diversity of our country.” The strategy identifies the need to fight systemic racism—which also has widespread impacts in cybersecurity. The new White House Gender Policy Council promises to put “a laser focus on the needs and contributions of women and girls, and ensuring a Government-wide focus on gender equity.” Together, these efforts may form the basis of a much needed whole-of-society approach. 

These are promising indicators, but these challenges are not mutually exclusive and solutions can’t be siloed. Countering the weaponization of racist and gendered narratives and the targeted harassment of women and populations of color online requires collaboration among the technology industry, the national security sector, and civil society on solutions. 

Relatedly, the interim strategy leaves out —for now—one key variable: systemic misogyny, a societal affliction that continues to stymie efforts to diversify an increasingly tech-centric national security workforce, policies to counter the gendered and racist threat of disinformation, and programs to eradicate systemic racism and gender discrimination. We can’t ignore misogyny if we are truly committed to revitalization of our democracy and to diversity, equity, and inclusion in a secure digital domain. 

One place to begin: acknowledge how society fails to value the security of girls and women. Violence against women continues to increase on and offline. Girls are disproportionately subject to online violence, including disinformation, doxxing, and cyber harassment. Let’s bring girls’ and women’s experiences to the forefront and reimagine our understanding of security for the 21st century, one that places the value of girls’ security over the value of their data.

The first step is to address the educational experiences that girls have online. Primary and secondary curricula should be deeply rooted in relevant lived experiences and examples that resonate with girls and women today. Girls must be armed with the knowledge and tools to know their rights online and understand the value of their data and how to protect it amid more pervasive digital security challenges. Educators need tools to support and energize students on issues affecting national security including cybersecurity, civics, government, media literacy, and equity. 

The online world poses real and unique threats to the advancement of girls and women. Until we can assess our greatest national security challenges and opportunities through an equity lens, we will continue to provide fodder to malicious actors who seek to sow discord through weaponized identity narratives online. We will continue to fail to diversify the cybersecurity field. We will continue to deprive our national security of the contributions of more than half the population.

Lauren Bean Buitta is Founder & CEO of Girl Security, a nonpartisan, non-profit organization preparing girls, women, and gender minorities for national security through learning, transitional training, and mentoring. Girl Security’s vision to forge equity in national security is rooted in a grassroots model that catalyzes girls and women across the nation and globally to reenvision a new understanding of national security for their generation.

Kyla Guru is 18 years old, a student at Stanford University, and the Founder/CEO of Bits N’ Bytes Cybersecurity Education Corp (BNBCE), a 501(c)(3) that distributes curriculum to 243+ schools, and sustains partnerships with school districts, corporations like Facebook and IBM, and educational platforms to increase training/awareness. She is also the co-founder of GirlCon Conference, an annual tech conference that unites 500+ industry professionals and students annually to discuss bridging the gender gap.

Claire Smith is an 18 year old incoming freshman at the University of California Berkeley. She completed a full length research project through Girl Security as a Girl Security Scholar about how the United States can defend against disinformation while upholding the First Amendment. 

Megan Stifel is Executive Director, Americas, at the Global Cyber Alliance, an international non-profit organization dedicated to reducing cybersecurity risk. She previously served as Director for International Cyber Policy on the National Security Council staff.