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Addressing Diversity in Cybersecurity

Cybersecurity is one of the most talked-about tech fields right now. As of late 2021, there are hundreds of thousands of open cybersecurity jobs in the United States. However, while the jobs are plentiful, diversity in cybersecurity is scarce. According to the Aspen Digital Tech Policy hub, only 4% of the IT security workforce identifies as Hispanic, 8% as Asian, and 9% as Black. On top of that, only 24% identify as women. The tech workforce is lacking in diversity, but a team of Pitt faculty and staff are working to help solve this problem.

The Diversity in Cybersecurity Project aims to find what exactly is keeping underrepresented groups—particularly women and people of color—and other qualified professionals from entering the field.

Leona Mitchell, Professor of Practice for the School of Computing and Information (SCI) and a member of the project team, says diversity in cybersecurity is not a new conversation.

“I’ve been in this industry for over 40 years, and we’ve been talking about diversity for 40 years. Diversity has stayed stagnant in cybersecurity, while it has grown in other fields. Our research looks to see why that is. Why isn’t anything changing?” Mitchell says.

As their first step to answering these questions, the team crafted a survey to distribute to the Pitt community and beyond in order to gauge how the public, specifically underrepresented groups, feel about cybersecurity.

Ahmed Ibrahim, an assistant professor in Informatics and Networked Systems in SCI and member of the project team, teaches cybersecurity courses and spearheaded the creation of the survey. Ibrahim said its main focus is to identify the barriers that are keeping under-represented professionals out of cybersecurity, as well as what is keeping them from staying in cybersecurity.

“One of the things we’ve seen before is that people get into cybersecurity for a little bit and then go somewhere else. We want to see why that is and what would enable people to stay, such as creating an inclusive environment and other opportunities such as strong mentorship.”

Sherif Khattab, a lecturer in the Computer Science department and project team member, echoes this statement. “There are a lot of talented people I see around me, but they say they don’t want to pursue cybersecurity and want to do something else. I think understanding the barriers, enablers, and perceptions of the field will help us find ways to attract talent and improve education and professional development opportunities to get people in—and stay in—cybersecurity,” he says.

Once the survey is closed, Ibrahim, Khattab, and the team will analyze the data to see what certain races and genders think about the field. These findings will help the team form their action plan to help diversify cybersecurity.

While Mitchell, Ibrahim, and Khattab have each worked in or taught cybersecurity, fellow team member Chelsea Gunn is new to the field. Gunn teaches in the Master of Library and Information Science program and has a background in archival work. She was drawn to cybersecurity and this project through her experiences working with secure digital archives.

“There are a lot of similar skills, technology, and methods being used. I was interested in cybersecurity and its intersections in the work that I already do. I’m learning a lot more as I work on this project, but I’m especially interested in diversifying the tech field as a whole,” she says.

This is the thread that brings each of the team members together: a passion for diversity.

“Data has proven—and common sense tells you—that when there is diversity in a team working on problems, you come up with a better answer, because people come at it differently,” Mitchell says. “Currently, we are reaching a crisis point in cybersecurity. The need to establish a stronger and more diversified workforce has never been more critical.”

Take the Diversity in Cybersecurity survey.

-- By Mary Rose O'Donnell, Student IT Blogger