Research conducted by Dr Vladlena Benson at Kingston University is looking into the role gender plays in people's behaviour online and the impact this has on cyber security.
The area of cyber security is as complex as it is important. Recent trends in information and communication technologies have taken the rates of personal information sharing, storage and processing to an unprecedented level. The way we look at privacy and security online continues to evolve. As we are encouraged to share more and more information online, we start to lose personal control over that information, and the more emphasis is placed on online business's role in the guardianship and development of tools and safeguards to protect, as well as give individuals control over their personal information.
But what if there is a fundamental flaw in the security tools being developed and presented by online business, and this flaw is potentially leaving sectors of our community more vulnerable to social engineering and other types of cyber-crime?
While researching information security and cyber victimisation, Dr Vladlena Benson and other experts in the field, discovered that peoples' views and behaviours around cyber security, particularly on social media, was strongly influenced by gender. Yet security measures provided by online platforms are rarely (if ever) tailored to specific audiences, let alone take gender into consideration.
This raised the question; who is developing the security tools being presented to users online, regardless of gender, and are they meeting the needs, values, beliefs, views and behaviours of their intended audience?
When looking at the question of who is developing online security tools, an important factor could be the make-up of the cyber security industry itself. The percentage of women in cyber security is critically low. A recent survey conducted by the Center for Cyber Safety and Education showed women form just seven percent of the European cyber-security workforce, amongst the lowest proportion anywhere in the world. In the UK, the proportion of women stands at just eight percent.
So if gender plays a role in the way people behave online and impacts the way they view and approach cyber security, are security measures developed by a male dominated IT industry causing a previously unrecognized gap in cyber security?
Dr Vladlena Benson believes more research and action is needed in this area. If large proportions of the online community approach cyber security differently, those differences should be recognised and reflected in the tools developed and offered in the online commercial space.
Dr Benson is no stranger to the IT gender agenda. Dr Benson has led on a number of research studies which have highlighted the gender gap in the cyber security job market. In 2017, she was awarded the Women in IT Editor's Choice Award for her work raising awareness and changing perceptions of careers in technology and cyber security for women.
But raising awareness of potential gender bias in cyber security is just part of the story. Dr Benson's desire to encourage and support more women into the industry also stems from deep concerns regarding the impending digital skills crisis.
The UK has a serious skills shortage when it comes to cyber security, and the chasm between supply and demand for expertise is widening at an alarming rate.
If rising demand is to be met, more needs to be done to build a pipeline for the future, by appealing to the full spectrum of the potential workforce, including women and the non-middle aged white male section of the population.
As Director of the Digital Behaviour Research centre at Kingston Business School, Dr Benson is rolling out the Cyber Security Fundamentals certification to open doors to students into a career in cyber. She also leads an EU-funded project which aims to increase the entrepreneurial culture of children aged 6-10 years through gaming and digital technology.
If the complex issues of cyber security are to be addressed, more is needed to shine a spotlight on diversity issues and to emphasise the ongoing importance of IT skills, as technology continues to rapidly evolve.
"We are still missing the link to providing exciting, learning opportunities for all genders across the digital skills gap we are witnessing. This issue will not go away unless we do some more research about it." - Dr Vladlena Benson