America needs cyber talent — especially among women. Without a capable workforce to secure the smartphone in your hand or the highly classified networks our government operates within, our economy and national security will be at risk.

We need to nurture a pool of interested young men and women to go into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs. The troubling news is that we are already behind the curve — and more women than men feel they are not qualified.

Were it not for a simple homework assignment that involved my own dad some years ago, I may not have ended up with a career in one of America’s most lucrative and burgeoning tech fields: cybersecurity.

My interest in a STEM-related career began during my preteen years. I was tasked by one of my eighth grade teachers to write about what I wanted to be when I grew up. All I knew was that the man I admired most — my dad — worked as a mechanical engineer. Like him, I loved science and math, so a “bring your daughter to work day” seemed in order.

My father — who worked in a secure government facility — got special permission to bring me along to his workplace one Saturday — where I saw his plans come to life. He designed machine components that were placed onto nuclear warships in defense of our nation. I could hardly imagine anything more glamorous or exciting than securing our national interests in the midst of the Cold War era. From that moment, I was hooked on engineering and the idea of defending our country against our greatest adversaries.

I followed in my father’s footsteps and earned an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering. Like my father — as well as today’s millennial generation — I wanted a career that paid well, but also that mattered beyond my paycheck. So, while earning my bachelor’s degree at Duke, I also undertook independent studies in computer science, which was of particular interest to me — an interest that would ultimately lead me to a job in a career field that fit the bill perfectly: systems engineering and cybersecurity.

Fast forward to present day, when defending our nation and our allies isn’t necessarily perceived as a desirable, popular or glamorous career choice among young adults entering the workforce. Be that as it may, it’s hard to imagine a less objectionable, more relevant and more desirable social good than keeping the Internet and our critical infrastructure safe for all.

Cybersecurity jobs offer a chance to do just that, while earning an above-average paycheck. So, it’s no wonder that at least some progress — however slow — is being made in addressing the cybersecurity talent pipeline challenge. We are finding more young adults interested in exploring the field.

The gender gap in STEM fields in general, and cybersecurity in particular, begins at home and in school.

But there’s still much work to do to fill the exploding demand. And a looming question remains: Where are all the women? To say that I wasn’t surprised by the ISC’s recent findings that nearly 90 percent of our global cybersecurity workforce are men would be an understatement. I’m quite accustomed to being the only woman in the room, despite my own company’s commitment to diversity. After all, these trends don’t begin in the workplace. The gender gap in STEM fields in general, and cybersecurity in particular, begins at home and in school.

So why are women not interested in cybersecurity classes, programs and careers? A new study of this gender gap among young adults commissioned by my employer, in partnership with the National Cyber Security Alliance, found that 33 percent of women said it was because they felt they weren’t qualified, compared to 24 percent of their male counterparts. Perception of skill and qualification begins at a young age, and my father instilled in me the same confidence he carried throughout his career.

We can’t leave half the potential workforce behind by continuing to let girls and women feel discouraged from choosing cybersecurity careers. It’s absolutely critical that we challenge this common perception and, from elementary school to college, encourage women to pursue STEM education to meet the increasing demand for cyber warriors.

It is not too late to expose young people — especially young women — to cybersecurity careers that will make a difference. Half of young adults say believing the mission of their employer is important. Those of us who chose careers in cybersecurity are all too aware that securing the Internet offers a clear path to that goal.

We must mentor young children and adults in schools and beyond, and I’d like to challenge my industry peers to help. Of course, we need to talk to both boys and girls, as well as young men and women, but let’s give some extra attention to bringing some semblance of gender parity to our cyber workforce. It may just be what saves us — a not-so-secret weapon to help fill our talent pipeline while defeating our cyber adversaries.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin

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Where Are All The Women In White Hats?