While the United States Air Force understands that it has a problem attracting, recruiting, and retaining successful cyberspace operations officers, a corollary, albeit unrealized or discounted problem looms regarding attracting, recruiting and retaining women cyber officers.
The Air Force 17X Specialty Code referencing cyber is subdivided into 17D and 17S. A 17D serves by “designing, building, configuring, securing, operating, maintaining and sustaining” the Department of Defense Information Network. A 17S Cyberwarfare officer is responsible for offensive cyber operations (OCO) or defensive cyber operations (DCO). Those positions are often seen as more desirable due to advanced training opportunities.
Recent studies evidence that public-private competition for cyber specialists is fierce, potentially leading to a USAF cyber personnel shortage similar to the pilot shortage, a shortage national security cannot afford. According to the IDEAS database, the USAF officer corps is 18 percent women and the overarching 17X Cyberspace Operations career field 14 percent women. However, the 17S Cyberwarfare career field, is only 8.3 percent women. The majority of women in cyber are 17Ds, performing jobs like network administration and network operations. The underrepresentation of women in the 17S career field requires Air Force acknowledgement as a problem and a plan with actionable items toward their recruitment and retention.
Including women in all aspects of national security is essential for a comprehensive perspective of the security environment. A study from 2018, for example, indicated women’s participation in peace negotiations correlated with increased durability and quality of peace. In cyberwar, specifically considerations regarding whether to target water, electrical, and nuclear facilities, women can provide a uniquely gendered perspective of unintended consequences on civilian populations.
Barriers to women in national security fields are both structural — stemming from law and policy — and cultural. Though the last legal hurdles to women serving in military positions were removed in 2013, cultural hurdles remain. As in e-sports and gaming industries, the cyber community has been largely a male-dominated field, with accompanying cultural biases. Because of the predominance of men in the Air Force and in the cyberwar corps, what it means to be an airman and what it means to be a cyber warrior has been informed by what it means to be a man.
Cyberwarfare stands at the nexus of tech and military culture. Cyber units cater to the nerd-culture and can inadvertently ostracize people with different interests. Outstanding performance in my last squadron was rewarded by the unit renting a video-game bus for a day. Leadership often went overboard emphasizing nerdy preferences and discounting others.
Both explicit and implicit biases against women remain in the USAF generally and the cyber community specifically. Studies have shown, for example, Air Force policies as largely unsupportive of women wanting to start families. Policies and practices also remain supporting implicit bias, such as including photos, names and race in application packages. Additionally, the current laissez-faire attitude towards mentorship primarily leads to men mentoring men.
Overall, there are fewer women cyber warriors because the Air Force is not making an effort. Cyber is chaos. The last few years have brought so much growth and change in United States cyber warfare that we are flying the airplane as we build it. The United States Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) tripled its operational force in recent years. Gender equality, however, hasn’t been a leadership priority, and if there is a plan to keep women in cyber, it hasn’t been prioritized or communicated. I have been in meetings where contractors directed their answers to the male lieutenant I brought with me as a trainee, despite my rank and experience. Teams pay attention to gender equality and respect when their leadership communicates it as a priority.
A way forward
If the Air Force wants to recruit and retain women cyber warriors, an intentional, transparent plan for such is needed, with those responsible for implementation held accountable. Further, women must be seen in authoritative positions as role models and leaders. The Air Force would also benefit from training leaders on the promotion of work-life balance in their teams, how to foster psychological safety, and how to identify their own biases. Additionally, adoption of the DODID on applications, rather than demographically identifiable cues, is a necessary step forward, as well as a review of the interviewing process for special programs to ensure questions are not biased. This step must be done in conjunction with other efforts to address systemic issues and challenges women and minorities face in application processes. And finally, meaningful mentorship and sponsorship of women, by men and women, is also needed.
Today, you can start by educating yourself on the importance of including women in security decision making, mentoring, and committing to a personal plan of action to promote equality. Encourage your team to have honest conversations and reward those that go out of their way to help others. If you are not doing the work, you are part of the problem.
Lillian Warner is a captain in the Air Force, technical lead of Kessel Run’s Red Team, a student at Harvard Extension School and proudly holds a certification in Exploit Research and Advanced Penetration Testing (GXPN). She graduated from the U. S. Air Force Academy in 2015 and was the first female to graduate the competitive cyber team, Delusions of Grandeur.
The opinions and assertions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force or the Department of Defense.
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