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What role for women in cyber security?

On the 8th of March, Commissioner Gabriel hosted a discussion on cyber skills and women talents in cyber security in DIGIT. The event was also the occasion to reward senior managers for being advocates for the Cyber Aware Programme.

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On the International Women’s Day, DIGIT welcomed at the Black Pearl building more than 100 colleagues contributing to the Cyber Security Awareness Raising Programme at the Commission, including close to 20 senior managers active as cyber security ambassadors. 


The event started with an exhibition to showcase the achievements of the Commission’s multi-annual Cyber Aware Programme. Bringing the fun element into the initiative, many colleagues joined the Cyber Aware Picture Campaign by taking a photo with a cyber goodie of their choice and leaving a favourite cyber quote.




A panel on the skills for cybersecurity followed with the participation of Commissioner Gabriel, CISCO CIO Chuck Robbins, DG CONNECT and experts from organisations developing cyber skills programs for women. Gertrud Ingestad, Director-General of DIGIT, opened the discussion stating that cyber security is challenging but also exciting, fast-moving and welcoming a broader skillset. She shared that DIGIT needs more female talents in IT security and therefore tries to create an environment of opportunities for women with the first results already a reality - cyber awareness is dominated by women in DIGIT!


In her keynote speech, Commissioner Gabriel highlighted the growing threat from cyber criminality and the need for building secure digital foundations against it. One way to do so is by tapping into female talent and providing the right incentives in order to spark women’s interest into the cyber field.  The Commissioner challenged the popular assumption that working in cybersecurity  requires a technical background and reassured that a variety of skills, including soft ones as communication and project management, are essential for the profession.


"Cyber doesn't have to be geeky, boring and male. As the field of cyber security expands we will need the range of skills and perspectives that women can bring."


Chuck Robins, CEO of Cisco Systems, talked about the company’s efforts to engage more women in technology. Cyber security should be inclusive, he pointed out, adding that while almost 60% of college graduates are female, only 17%-18% of them choose an IT career. Another important issue is realising why cyber threats are important – ‘’if we don’t prevent them, we will not be able to take advantage of the opportunities technology provides’’. It was also curious to hear about Cisco’s worldwide network academies aiming at training students into IT, including cyber. These are educational programmes which Cisco brought even to prisons in Italy, thus turning a former criminal with no engineering background into a cyber-specialist.

"The game changes everyday in the cyber field and it is a phenomenal place to be for intelligent, curious, inquisitive people. So, I think it represents an opportunity for women everywhere. Particularly in light of the need of women in technology, cyber is such a natural place to be. "


Despina Spanou, Director for Digital Society, Trust and Cybersecurity at DG CONNECT, said she was lawyer by profession but chose the cyber career out of passion and willingness to learn. According to her, bringing in people from other sectors, not just the tech one, is one way of addressing the talent gap in both private and public sector. Elly van den Heuvel, Secretary to the Dutch Cyber Security Council, expressed her belief that whereas cyber security should be inside products and services, people will remain at the centre. She stressed on the importance of parents encouraging their daughters from an early age to consider IT education. As one of the first female directors in her organisaiton, Elly firmly believes that men should be actively involved as well.


Cheryl Miller Van Dyck, Founder of the Digital Leadership Institute, talked about her 9 years of experience in supporting women in cyber globally. She referred to the “CyPro” Training and Job Placement Program for Women as constantly looking for women with skills they can leverage through an innovative curriculum. Finally, Rosanna Kurrer and Patrick Wheeler spoke about the CyberWayFinder programme – a 3-year training and mentorship programme, directly filling roles to increase diversity in cyber teams. Together with Elly, they hosted a thought provoking afternoon session and answered practical questions how they help women find work opportunities in the IT field, including in cyber security.


Following the panel, a ceremony took place in the Black Pearl. Commissioner Mariya Gabriel rewarded 5 Directors-General for their outstanding achievements in raising awareness among their staff about cyber security: Florika Fink-Hooijer (DG Interpretation), Johannes Laitenberger (DG Competition), Manfred Kraff (Internal Audit Service),  Monique Pariat (European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations),  Veronica Gaffey (Office for Administration and Payment of individual entitlements) received the title of 'Cyber Aware Champion' for their personal engagement and dedication to supporting the corporate Cyber Aware programme.


You can still watch the webstream video from the panel and follow the #skills4cyber hashtag on Twitter for more highlights.