Organization to empower women, nonbinary students in cybersecurity

Media Credit: Photo Illustration by Danielle Towers I Assistant Photo Editor

WiCyS leaders said 71 students are registered as members and plan to continue hosting weekly meetings this year to expand membership.

Updated: Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022 at 10:26 a.m.

A student organization has been working to empower women and nonbinary students in the field of cybersecurity by facilitating professional opportunities this fall.

Student leaders of Women in Cybersecurity, or WiCyS, the GW chapter of a global organization, said they aim to help undergraduate and graduate students find cybersecurity internships and prepare for careers in cybersecurity. WiCyS leaders said 71 students are registered as members and plan to continue hosting weekly meetings this year to expand membership, in addition to having a table in the University Student Center for September’s Women’s Org Fair and spreading the word about the club verbally among peers.

Darika Shaibekova, a graduate student studying computer science and the co-president of WiCyS, said she decided to help establish the organization, which was approved in March, after noticing a lack of resources for women and nonbinary people to find internships in related fields. She said their main goal is to help students, particularly undergraduates, to enter the cybersecurity field by assisting them in kick-starting their careers.

“We just didn’t know who to reach out to, and that’s why we started this organization on campus, to help students get internship positions, teaching them about cybersecurity 101,” she said.

According to GW enrollment data, 117 women were enrolled in computer science Master’s and Bachelor’s programs in 2021. Women make up 24 percent of the cybersecurity workforce.

Shaibekova said WiCyS is planning on hosting events with private companies who sponsor the organization for members to network with them.

“We are recruiting and providing resources like getting internship positions and networking,” she said. “We have also been helping them apply for scholarships to attend conferences as well, so they can expand their network.”

Lena Rose, a graduate student studying security policies and the other co-president of the organization, said WiCyS strives to “empower” women and nonbinary people in the field of cybersecurity. Rose said the organization discusses ways to overcome the potential “imposter syndrome” and self-doubt that women and nonbinary people experience as a results of the lack of representation they face in the field and encourage members to continue pursuing opportunities.

“Being a part of this community is really a confidence boost for a lot of people,” Rose said. “We are letting people know that we are here to make an impact in the cybersecurity field. This is a recurring theme in this club.”

Rose said she has been in contact with American University’s WiCyS chapter president and hopes to eventually host a joint event. There are 150 WiCyS student chapters throughout the world and presidents of student chapters are guaranteed scholarships to attend the annual WiCyS conference, where they can connect with other chapters.

“I think that combining the two clubs would definitely strengthen the presence of women in cybersecurity within the D.C. region,” she said.

Student leaders said they hosted an event to help other students with their applications for scholarships to attend the WiCyS conference.

Carmela Gonzales, a second-year graduate student and the strategy chair of WiCyS, said her responsibilities involve handling partnerships with collaborating organizations and sponsors. She said her goal is to help others grow professionally at events like study groups and weekly general body meetings, where the organization’s leaders host roundtable discussions about technical topics like cyberattacks and policy-based issues like how China’s rise as a technology superpower is shaping the future of the cyber industry.

“I really hope that students can grow into their own personal, career and academic identities,” Gonzales said. “I care about them figuring out the narrative for themselves and providing opportunities if that’s the path they want.”

Gonzales said she helped launch the GW chapter after a personal mentor connected her with the other students on the executive board during a WiCyS conference in Denver in 2020. 

“The conference had a huge impact on me,” she said. “Since I was already heading towards senior year, I felt like I didn’t have enough time to start a club. I told myself that when I started graduate school, I would pay it forward.”

Senior Emily Zimmermann, majoring in international affairs with a concentration in Asia and Chinese and a member of WiCyS, said she has attended the weekly meetings and study sessions, and that leaders have been very “welcoming” and “kind.”

She said the organization’s events have given her an opportunity to meet other women in a male-dominated field.

“Carmela has been helping me out a lot with job applications,” she said. “I’ve been able to meet really cool people at her company that have been really helpful for understanding what I want to do.”

Zimmermann said she’s interested in U.S.-China relations, specifically focusing on technological security. She said she learned through her involvement with WiCyS that positions in cybersecurity pertaining to China are in high demand, due to the increasing relevance of cybersecurity in U.S.-China relations.

Zimmermann said she could see herself fitting into a career on this path, and she has been applying for jobs at companies like Intel and Verizon to work in their international government affairs or regulatory teams.

“I never really thought about it that much before,” she said. “I didn’t know cybersecurity was such a big topic in international affairs.”

This post has been updated to correct the following:
In a previous version of this article, The Hatchet incorrectly spelled Gonzales’ name once. Her name is now spelled correctly throughout the story. We regret this error.

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