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Katie Shuck: there’s a lack of support for girls to enter cybersecurity

Katie Shuck was a language teacher when she decided to change careers and dive into cybersecurity. She wasn’t good at maths, but even a degree in arts or music shouldn’t stop anyone from entering the field, she told CyberNews.

“Whether you have an arts background, sports, maths, or science, the only thing you need is to be curious enough to ask the questions,” Katie Shuck told CyberNews.

As women in cybersecurity account for only around 24%, she encourages females of any age to just enter the field regardless of any stereotypes around women and technology.

“I really believe that everybody can succeed at any age, any background,” said Katie, who entered the cybersecurity field just 4 years ago.

You changed careers 4 years ago. What did you use to do before? How did you decide to jump into cybersecurity?

I was an educator before. I taught high school and middle school students, and then I worked in a corporate world teaching English as a foreign language. So I have a linguistics background.

I started to recognize some of the ongoing problems with some of my students, especially in the high school age (13-18 years). They were having some situations occur online that weren’t healthy. I started asking questions about why this was happening, how it could happen, how we could keep kids safe.

Also, I worked with human trafficking victims for several years and got frustrated because everything was retroactive. The more I thought about it, cybersecurity was the way to be proactive in helping victims to stop a crime before it even begins.

So that’s what made me start looking at schools to go back and start learning about the technical aspects and components. I didn’t know any of that. I’d never taken a coding class.

So I went back to the start, found Dakota State University, and really liked their degree program and the emphasis that they put on not only technical but also human components, such as risk management, and governance. I entered their undergraduate program to seek out another undergraduate degree which then went into a master's program, and now I am in a doctoral program.

Through that, I found one of the programs they do - cybHER - where we go into schools and teach young students about cybersecurity and cybersafety. And that is my passion area.

Most of those schools don’t have a centralized way to understand the information that is being collected online and in the classroom. I think that is setting us up for potential future data breaches with our young kids. They are on so many platforms, and it’s only a matter of time before we find out there’s a data breach with those platforms.

Did you have to quit your job to study cybersecurity?

I fully stopped working, went back, and for a year I did not work at all. And then cybHER actually hired me part-time to be an instructor with them, and then they were able to get me funded through some grants that have since paid for all of my education. And I get a stipend on top of that.

I know that you have kids. Was it hard to start a new career? Did you ever have doubts about entering a new field because of the family?

Every day I think that. I am blessed to have so many mentors who have just encouraged me along the way. I just keep in mind my goal, and every time I see a student say thank you for the work that we are doing, it helps me know that I’m on the right track. Even my kids see that, and their understanding of cybersecurity at a very young age they just motivate me to keep continuing.

Your career now is not that different in the sense that you are still teaching students. Only the subject is different. Am I right?

I’m not an all-day teacher. I’m the fun teacher who gets to come in and teach about the topic that they may not have learned about. To teach something that is not required by the school is very exciting for me. I get to do a lot more fun things with the students than before. I work with undergraduate students and get to be a mentor to them. They work with our programs and learn how to teach. So now I’m mentoring other young women and men to be the future leaders in cybersecurity and cybereducation.

Katie Shuck tweet screenshot 1

When you started learning about cybersecurity, what did you notice in your surroundings - are your family and friends behaving safely on the internet?

I’m lucky my husband does have a computer background in a lot of stuff I’m learning, and he’s helped me, especially in coding classes. 

My kids have definitely learned a lot, especially as they moved to the virtual classrooms with COVID-19. They’re actually telling their teachers “hey, we need to watch what’s in the background of our classrooms, and we need to watch what we’re telling people online, as these platforms are not 100% secure.”

My kids also understand when we say we don’t want them on certain platforms with social media or games. Or that we don’t want them to talk about personal things when gaming online. They understand that now. And they’ve been teaching their friends, and I think it’s just spreading even more through my kids. Our friends are learning and teaching their families. So it’s just growing exponentially.

Two woman talking on TV
CybHER leader Katie Shuck visited KDLT News today to talk about online safety for kids. Thanks for your leadership, Katie.

Besides teaching, what else do you do? Do you have a research field?

As a student, I research data privacy, specifically as it relates to educational settings - kindergarten through twelfth-grade setting. I look at what technology platforms are they using, are they secure, are they in compliance with the laws here in the United States. I’m looking into how we can make the classroom more secure for these kids.

As you’ve been observing this for a year already, and it gained importance because of COVID-19, what observations did you make?

I think it’s a lack of consistency and technology that is used in the classroom. Parents and teachers don’t always understand the things that they are agreeing to. My kids have about five different technology platforms that they are using in their schools. I go through and read all of the terms of services and the privacy policies, but I know I’m the rare exception with that.

To not understand what we are approving and giving consent for is a big problem. Most of those schools don’t have a centralized way to understand the information that is being collected online and in the classroom. I think that is setting us up for potential future data breaches with our young kids. They are on so many platforms, and it’s only a matter of time before we find out there’s a data breach with those platforms.

The cybersecurity field does not have a lot of women. Why?

I think there’s a lack of support and mentoring girls to enter cybersecurity fields. I was discouraged from going into technology fields. We need more female mentors and allies, men letting girls know that you can do it, you can be that first girl working in this arena, you can come and be a leader, a voice for other women to come into cybersecurity.

Katie Shuck tweet screenshot 2

So girls are still discouraged from joining the tech field just because they are girls?

I think it comes with the cost of education. To go to some of the schools that are known to be good is really expensive. That’s one of the things that I really appreciated about Dakota State University - it is very cost affordable. You don’t have to go to these extremely popular schools to get a good quality of cybersecurity education.

How do you think the situation will change in 5 to 10 years? Will we have more women in cybersecurity?

I have a lot of hope that we will see more girls. And we’ve seen evidence of that.  Dakota State University’s female population in our computer and cyberscience programs has increased dramatically. Also, there are great programs like Women in CyberSecurity (WiCyS) that are now encouraging women worldwide.

We are seeing a lot of great female leadership and working opportunities that weren’t there even five years ago.

Do you need a specific IT education to enter the cybersecurity field, or, for example, a diploma in arts can be enough?

I think the only commonality in cybersecurity and the ability to enter is being curious. Whether you have an arts background, sports or maths or science, the only thing you need is to be curious enough to ask the questions.

Girls building a computer
cybHER teaches children about cybersecurity

What if some girl, who wants to enter the field, is not good at maths or physics, and now just thinks she can’t do it?

I wasn’t great at those fields either. That’s why I studied languages. I feel there’s a place for everybody.

I’m never going to be a great coder. I did find that I love math, I ended up getting a certificate in cryptography. I have never had a teacher who made it seem real and possible. I started learning about cryptography, I had an amazing professor. He helped me, mentored me, helped me find the answers in this field I wasn’t great at.

I think it only takes those people coming alongside and walking with us, helping us through those things that we are not good at. I do need to have conversations with coders, but I don’t need the perfect coder for that.

What would be your advice for anyone who wants to jump into cybersecurity?

My advice is just go out, ask the questions, and just do it. I really believe that everybody can succeed at any age, any background. Find the mentors, people who will help you succeed, who will motivate, empower, and encourage you, and stand alongside them. Sometimes it’s baby steps, but just keep taking those steps forward.

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