Skip to main content
Exploring what’s next in tech – Insights, information, and ideas for today’s IT and business leaders

Girl Scouts join global push to 'plant a seed' for women in tech

A new cybersecurity program teaches girls online safety, while giving them tech confidence.

The push to diversify the workforce in the technology industry continues to not just increase but find new advocates. 

With an expected 3.5 million computer-related job openings in the United States by 2026, there’s a growing effort to fill out those ranks with more women and minorities. And there’s a new spotlight shining on the cybersecurity field.

As attacks on corporate, private, and government systems continue to increase, the demand for cybersecurity professionals is fast outpacing the country’s current cybersecurity workforce. Actually, the global shortage of cybersecurity professionals has never been worse, according to ISC2, a global IT security organization, which reported in late 2018 a shortage of 2.93 million cybersecurity pros—and nearly 500,000 of those posts are in North America.

Both to fill those critical job openings and diversify a largely male-oriented tech workforce, an effort is afoot to prepare girls for jobs in the cybersecurity space. The idea is to reach out to girls before they hear negative stereotypes—like "girls aren’t good at math"—to spark their curiosity about computer science and expand their ideas of what jobs await them. 

A new cybersecurity curriculum tested and launched by the Girl Scouts of Nation’s Capital, a nationally affiliated local council that serves more than 60,000 girls, is taking on that job. While the program is meant to teach girls how to safely navigate the Internet, it goes beyond that.

Pilot program

The new pilot program, which could expand nationally if successful, also is geared at giving young girls a sense of confidence about technology and lighting a curiosity within them about STEM, which could one day lead them to study math and science, join the high-tech industry, and maybe even become technology leaders.

“I think it’s pretty important to get to kids before they get to middle school and start to be hit by gender stereotypes that tell them girls don’t code,” says Lydia Chilton, assistant professor of computer science at Columbia University. “There are strong messages in society that push women away from technology. We want them open minded when they form their identities.… This Girl Scout program is great. It’s crucial to do hands-on things as early as possible, and that’s what this does.”

Hewlett Packard Enterprise collaborated with the Girl Scouts of Nation’s Capital to develop and initiate the program, targeting girls ages 9 to 11 years old. Launched late last month, the curriculum teaches the scouts about security issues, protecting their personal information, the importance of privacy, and dealing with cyberbullying. Upon completion, scouts are awarded a cybersecurity patch.

Interactive game teaches cybersecurity skills

As part of the program, HPE debuted an interactive online game, dubbed Cyber Squad, giving girls hands-on, interactive practice tackling real-life security situations. Using avatars, the players are asked to assess the safety of different situations, such as receiving an email with an attachment from an unknown sender, and then deciding how to react. The players are rewarded for making good decisions and are shown how the scenario might play out if they make risky decisions.

“We didn’t want this to be death by PowerPoint,” says Sharon Gurry, cybersecurity program manager at HPE and the person leading the Girl Scout cybersecurity program. “We’re planting a seed. It’s all about making it fun at this age. For 9- to 11-year-olds, they still have that confidence that they can be whatever they want to be. We’re showing them at that early age they can be confident and comfortable with STEM. The younger we catch them and get them in it, the more likely they’ll be to get into STEM in the future.”

The partnership was spearheaded by HPE’s Women in Cybersecurity International (WCSI), an employee group dedicated to involving more women in STEM subjects and raising awareness of cybersecurity as a profession. (Women are estimated to comprise only 11 percent of the global cybersecurity security workforce.)

Gurry notes that eventually they’ll expand the Girl Scout cybersecurity program to both older and younger girls; they also plan to reach out to boys.

However, part of the reason they’re starting with girls in this age group is because of the lack of diversity in tech fields.

In 2017, only 26 percent of professional computing occupations in the United States were held by women, according to an April 2018 report from the National Center for Women & Information Technology, a nonprofit organization focused on increasing the participation of girls and women in computing. And the pipeline to even those numbers out isn’t exactly wide open. The center also reported that while 57 percent of overall bachelor’s degree recipients were women in 2016, only 19 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer and information sciences went to women in the same year.

Organizations like Girls Who CodeWomen Who Code, and Girls in Tech work to close the gender gap in technology. With members around the globe, the groups offer job boards, mentoring, school programs, coding courses, boot camps, hackathons, and startup competitions. It’s all about making sure girls and women have equal opportunities in the tech field, while bringing a more diverse workforce to the industry.

“We want to break the mold and tell women there are no stereotypical roles for either gender,” says Gurry. “This is hugely important. There needs to be a serious overhaul of gender balance in the tech industry. You have to have different perspectives. Men will have one perspective, and women will have another. When you only have the same type of people working on a project, you won’t have the same amount of innovation or change. You need a good mix. You need a mix of genders and backgrounds and age groups. Everyone brings something to the table.”

The Girl Scouts are in a particularly good position to introduce girls to the world of tech. The more than 100-year-old organization today has 1.8 million girl members, and one of its four pillars is STEM. (For curiosity’s sake, the other three are the outdoors, entrepreneurship, and healthy living.)

That makes the scouts an important ally in the effort to diversify a heavily male-occupied field, says Lidia Soto-Harmon, CEO of Girls Scouts of Nation’s Capital.  

“We have a real interest in working with partners in the technology field to work on that pipeline, and we do that by exposing girls at a much younger age to science, tech, engineering, and math,” says Soto-Harmon. “We’re finding the confidence gap is still a very real thing. As girls enter sixth grade, they start to lose their confidence and their interest in math and science. Then that confidence doesn’t show up until they are 80 years old. Eighty! Think how that affects employment opportunities.”

That means efforts to reach out to girls in high school to interest them in math and science simply come too late. According to Soto-Harmon, if you don’t get to them by fourth and fifth grade, they likely won’t want to take Algebra 2 or calculus in high school. They just won’t want to—or think they can—challenge themselves in math and science. And they really won’t consider careers in related fields.

“We know this will plant a seed of interest and confidence, but it also gives them the scientific language,” says Soto-Harmon. “Some of what this patch will do is give girls that language they need to move forward. Anything can be intimidating if you don’t understand the language. What are the buzzwords? What does coding actually mean? Being cyber-smart will give them that platform. They’ll feel more confident, more savvy, safer, more secure.”

Hillary Tabor, a troop leader for the past seven years in the Virginia area, piloted the new cybersecurity patch program, with the girls in her troop going through the curriculum and playing the tutorial game. She says the cybersecurity patch has opened up a new world to some of the girls she volunteers with.

“It got them into discussions about online safety and the nuances of making safety decisions, but it also helped raise an overall awareness about the field,” she says. “There were discussions like, ‘Wow. There are people who do this for a living?’ They didn’t realize how much is involved in keeping their information secure. There was an entire world of online jobs they had never even thought about. Cybersecurity is going to be a huge field when they are looking at jobs, maybe even more so than it is today. We want them to be uniquely qualified for those jobs. We want these jobs and challenges to be second nature to them.”

Having Girl Scouts work on a cybersecurity patch gives them an opportunity to not only explore an interest but express that interest to the adults in their lives. Parents or other family members then have the opportunity to nourish that interest, taking them to science fairs, for instance, encouraging them to take more math and science classes, and opening up new conversations.

“We might forget that girls might be interested in math, science, and computers so we don’t give them the opportunity to become curious about it,” says Joey Rosenberg, chief leadership officer for Women Who Code, an international nonprofit organization with 167,000 members who are career-age tech professionals. “This opens up an avenue for girls to carve a path toward computer science. And it is important for Individuals to have access to quality, important, and innovative jobs, and it’s important for the tech industry, which is looking for talent.”

Rosenberg adds, “We’ve got a real opportunity here to tap into more and more women in this space. Girls need to get their hands dirty and become exposed to computer science.… This Girl Scouts program is doing that.”

Related links:

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.