CyberDay4Girls: Filling Young Minds With Big Ideas

Learning About Cybercrime

By James Daly

Heather Ricciuto likes giving young women the permission to dream. And in her profession – the male-dominated field of cybersecurity — that means putting a lot of big ideas into the heads of kids who are just starting to think about a career.

“Too often, young women don’t even know what a cybersecurity professional does,” says Ricciuto, a Markham, Ontario-based academic outreach leader for IBM Security. “They only see that Hollywood image of a guy with a hoodie or a mask. Many young women don’t realize that cybersecurity is something they can study or build a career on.”

Studies show that few teachers or guidance counselors recommend career and study opportunities in cybersecurity, Ricciuto says. Her goal: put professional female role models in front of girls so “they can see what they can be.”

That’s why Ricciuto helped to create, develop and implement CyberDay4Girls, a day-long program sponsored by IBM, that brings cybersecurity awareness to middle school girls around the world.

What started as a pilot program with eight small events across Canada and the US in October 2016 has grown into a global campaign with more than 100 events in  Argentina, Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, India, Ireland, Nigeria, Scotland, South Africa, UK, and the US. More than 850 volunteers have pitched in an estimated 7,000 volunteer hours, reaching more than 6,000 girls to date. Today, Ricciuto continues to run the program, with the help of a co-lead and core volunteer team.

While typically organized as a field trip for a group of about 60 girls to an IBM location, they also work with local colleges and universities as well as industry partners to deliver programming. The volunteers are largely from IBM Security, although many come from other business units. “The thing that all of the volunteers have in common is a passion for educating our youth on this important subject,” Ricciuto says.

The day starts with the basics, teaching girls how to protect their personal information online and build a positive digital reputation, what Ricciuto calls “good cyber hygiene.” That includes everything from how to create strong passwords to cautionary tales about sharing personal information. The students also learn about cybercrime tactics like phishing, social engineering and ransomware, as well as defensive security techniques like threat modelling and cryptography. Password cracking games add fun to what can be a pretty serious subject.

“We also encourage the girls to pay it forward by sharing what they’ve learned with their friends and families, especially younger siblings and grandparents,” Ricciuto says.

Finally, the girls learn about careers. “Cyber security is moving at such a fast pace, we have to move even faster to keep up,” says Ricciuto, a 31-year IBM veteran. ”We can’t fill all the positions that are out there, so it’s a good field to get into. And there are openings in all areas, from coders and penetration testers to HR professionals.”

Ricciuto’s work, and similar career awareness programs, are having an effect. According to the (ISC)² Cybersecurity Workforce Study, women working in cybersecurity currently account for about one quarter of the overall workforce, a significantly higher finding than from 2017, when only 11% of study respondents where women.

The impact of the CyberDay4Girls program is often immediate. “At the beginning of the day we ask the girls if they are interested in cybersecurity and we’re lucky if one or two hands are raised,” says Ricciuto. “By the end of the day we have many more.”

Numbers like that delight Ricciuto. “This program is a long-term investment in the girls,” she says. “It's about paying it forward, opening their minds to possibility, and having a little fun along the way.”

James Daly, a long-time journalist, has been a writer and editor with Wired, Rolling Stone, Business 2.0, Edutopia and TED, among others.