Cyber ​​Hollywood: On-Screen vs. Reality

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Television and movies influence how we see the world, from shaping how we should find love to the kind of parents we should be. Sometimes there is character development and sometimes there is no dimension at all. One character often misrepresented in movies is “the hacker.” People who work in cyber are almost always portrayed by a cisgender white male. Nowhere on the big or small screen is a trope more clearly defined.

We must first ask, why are there so few women or Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) in hacker roles in the media? Unfortunately, this may be due to the lack of diversity within the cybersecurity industry. Women make up only 24% of the cybersecurity workforce, while 9% self-identify as black. The field remains astonishingly homogeneous. Historically, it has been challenging to encourage women and BIPOC into cyber careers. This then results in a Catch-22 situation – where the lack of women and BIPOC on the big and small screen mirrors the lack on the field.

A step in the right direction

However, if you look hard enough — and as far back as the 90s — you’ll find some incredibly smart, incredibly witty BIPOC or female hackers ready to play among the shadows of the Internet. There are fictional characters on TV such as Alec Hardison of Leverage, Penelope Garcia of Criminal Minds, Chloe O’Brien of 24, and Elliot Alderson of Mr. Robot. In the movies, Angelina Jolie plays Kate Libby in the cult classic Hackers. More recently, Furious 7 featured Ramsey, the cyber genius who creates the software at the center of the film, and the highly anticipated Ocean’s Eight cast Rihanna as the talented hacker Nine Ball. These characters create spaces for underrepresented communities to identify on and off screen, encourage women and BIPOC to explore the field of cybersecurity — and reprogram the way hackers are portrayed.

While composite characters like hackers are a great way to deliver a simplified message and story to viewers, the downside is that they only represent a small fraction of the entire cybersecurity workforce. There are many more cybersecurity roles than what is usually portrayed on the big screen, including fields of engineering and computer science in almost every industry imaginable: healthcare, automotive, manufacturing, aerospace and many more.

Mentoring and cyber education can help

While it’s critical to recruit a diverse cast of stars for television shows and movies, it’s equally important to offer a range of diverse, positive role models in the workforce. However, cultivating a diverse cybersecurity workforce requires the intention, commitment and leadership of organizations themselves.

The first step organizations can take to nurture the next generation of cyber talent is to introduce mentoring programs and support systems. These can come from nonprofits, scholarships, or even diversity, equality, and inclusion (DEI) programs started from within the company itself. An effective program connects students with the resources they need to accelerate career paths and build the foundational skills to successfully join the constantly evolving cyber workforce.

Having these support systems and mentors also helps create a cybersecurity career path for individuals already working in technology or pursuing a career. Supporting these kinds of connections and links ultimately shapes conversations about what new and emerging fields look like and helps redefine what it means to be a cybersecurity professional – improving retention and easing the workload.

Diversity and inclusion can solve the acute talent shortage in the cyber industry. We need to create role models in cyber that the younger generation can see and aspire to. The future of cyber looks bright with the help of Hollywood, STEM and cyber programs in elementary school, support for higher education institutions and major shifts in corporate culture. Combined, these efforts will create a knock-on effect on cyber growth and diversity.

Lodrina Cherne is a Certified Instructor at the SANS Institute and Chief Security Attorney at Cybereason.

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