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University of Queensland is hacking through perceptions that cybersecurity is a 'man's game'

ABC NEWS logo ABC NEWS 26/11/2020 By Jason Dasey
a woman sitting on a wooden bench: Georgia Brady admits it will take years to address the gender imbalance in cybersecurity. (Supplied) © Provided by ABC News Georgia Brady admits it will take years to address the gender imbalance in cybersecurity. (Supplied)

Australia's cybersecurity experts are aiming to tackle an issue plaguing the industry worldwide — the perception that what they do is a "boy thing".

Queensland University of Technology computer science graduate Georgia Brady is painfully aware of the gender imbalance.

"The cybersecurity industry is still very much a man's game because that's the way it's been, but programs like this are helping change that," she said.

The 21-year-old from Toowoomba is one of five students awarded a HP Women in Cyber Security scholarship at the University of Queensland (UQ).

According to the Federal Department of Home Affairs, Australia reflects a global trend of only about 10 per cent female participation in the workforce tasked with protecting digital integrity.

The UQ scholarship program, launched earlier this year, aims to open the door to stronger female representation in a crucial industry.

Senior UQ cybersecurity researcher Ryan Ko said it was important the industry moved with the times to keep pace with growing global threats.

"As cyber attackers evolve, so too must the industry, and UQ is focused on developing highly skilled professionals who can meet the security challenges of the future," Professor Ko said.

"The industry needs diversity of thought, gender and culture because the threats are coming from criminals of different backgrounds and different mindsets."

Demand for cybersecurity professionals is expected to increase after a year in which many Australians have come to rely heavily on technology because of coronavirus restrictions.

The growth in work from home and remote learning has greatly expanded the number of people dependent on computers and other online devices.

The federally funded industry body AustCyber estimates an extra 17,000 Australian cybersecurity professionals will be required by 2026.

Ms Brady said it would likely take "a lot of time" to get more women into cybersecurity.

"I love the industry and if I'm one of the people changing it in terms of more women becoming involved, I'm happy to do so," she said.

The UQ program brings in students who have completed undergraduate degrees in technology, business, mathematics, social science and law.

Professor Ko previously worked for three years as a lead computer scientist at HP, which is providing professional mentors for the UQ scholarship recipients.

'Get girls engaged from kindergarten'

HP national enterprise manager for education and government Rachael Williams said women brought unique strengths to cybersecurity.

"There are unique thought processes and elements that females bring to the table, with a richness of thinking and problem solving," she said.

"Education is where it all starts and we have to get girls engaged from kindergarten.

"We need to change that conversation about it being only a boy thing.

"It's for everyone to get passionate about so we are looking to create platforms that encourage girls into cybersecurity."

Ms Brady initially began studying a fine arts degree at QUT before changing direction after six months "because there wasn't enough maths in it".

"Working in cybersecurity was always my long-term goal, anyway," she said.

"This year they've found vulnerabilities in Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other platforms for business use, so there is very much a need for cybersecurity because we've all gone online.

"I want to be part of a team that protects an asset of a company … I enjoy being hands on and getting to the press the big red button to respond to things."

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