“Do you even know how to code?”
Jessie Pease, a rising senior at Cal Poly, gets asked this question by male colleagues all the time. She’s spent years in advanced coding classes and interned at both Cisco and Apple, so the question slightly offends her. But she’s begun to accept that it’s just part of life as a woman in computer science. Nationally, only 18% of computer science degrees are awarded to women, but in Pease’s subfield of cybersecurity, the figure is even lower. Pease tells me that there are only two women out of 30 in her security electives courses.
In an effort to bridge this gender gap, Hewlett-Packard announced today that it has granted $250,000 to the Scholarship for Women Studying Information Security program. This year, 11 women received the scholarship—and Pease is one of the recipients.
“Security can seem like a masculine field because it has an adversarial component to it,” says Rebecca Wright, a professor of at Rutgers who helped pick the finalists. “The idea of fighting against an enemy can be less appealing to women than a man.”
But to Pease, the possibility of a good cyber-fight was thrilling, particularly at a national security level. She fell in love with the craft of code-making and code-breaking when she heard an NSA expert give a lecture about the Enigma Machine that deciphered secret messages in World War One. “Working in security sounded like solving puzzles every day,” she remembers.
But even though she’s pursuing her dream, Pease tells me that studying security at Cal Poly has been a challenge, not because the field is highly technical—which it is—but because her male classmates regularly undermine her.
“They’ll make comments like ‘The only reason you got that job is because you’re a woman,’” she explains. “A male lab partner will just take over the whole experiment because they think girls are incompetent. It makes it hard for us to learn by doing.”
Pease is trying to change the culture at Cal Poly by spearheading groups that empower women. She’s the president of the Women in Software and Hardware (WISH) club and she’s participates in a Lean In circle, a small group of women who discuss how to tackle the gender gap in computer science.
Pease says her experiences interning have shown her that these problems will not go away when she joins the workforce, so she’s girding her loins now by building relationships with women in the industry and thinking about how to respond to the challenges of a male-dominant office culture.
She also believes that bringing more women into cyber-security will make the field stronger.
“Women have a different experience of security, even when they are just going about their daily life,” she says. “They are more wary about having their privacy invaded.” She’s already noticed that having more diverse teams in her security internships has resulted in more creative ideas. “Having both perspective helps,” she says.
Wright tells me that this scholarship will be critical to the recipients’ success. “The idea is to give women who are already very excited about this field the resources they need to follow this path,” she says. “But more than money, it connects women to potential internships at Hewlett-Packard and networking groups.”