Cybersecurity mainly male domain, geek image deters girls

Thu Oct 27, 2011 2:07pm EDT
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* Women earn 18 percent of computer science degrees

* Image of geek unappealing to girls

By Tabassum Zakaria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - There were no lines for the ladies room. That was unusual for an event attended by thousands but typical in the cybersecurity field where a futuristic image clashes with an old-fashioned gender gap.

At cybersecurity and hacker gatherings, women are clearly in the minority among the sea of men lining escalators, filling gigantic hotel ballrooms and networking in hallways. (Some men grumbled about the lack of women at event parties).

While the U.S. government and private sector urgently try to beef up cybersecurity efforts, the information technology field that supplies talent remains largely a male domain.

Experts say the lack of women is not so much a matter of discrimination as the fact that young women do not think of cyber as a career option. They attribute that partly to an unappealing "geek" image from movies and girls' lack of early computer skills that boys develop by playing video games.

The portrayal in movies and television of a nerd loner, wearing thick glasses, soldering circuits together, and living in a dungeon-like room surrounded by computers and eating boxed pizza can be a deterrent.

Phyllis Schneck, chief technology officer for public sector at McAfee, Inc, said she was one of the only women in computer science as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University and her friends used to make geek jokes. "But when it came time to help them fix their computers because it ate their term paper, I'm the one they called," she said.   Continued...

<p>A women uses her laptop at the booth of IBM at the world's largest computer fair CeBIT in Hanover March 9, 2005. TECOM REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch</p>