Book review of “InSecurity: Why a Failure to Attract and Retain Women in Cybersecurity Is Making Us All Less Safe”. A special, “International Women’s Day” edition 😊
By Eh’den Biber
Prologue – why the hell do I write this review?
Everyone who works in the cyber / information security industry knows that there is current inequality of outcome with regards to the numbers of women vs. men in the field.
Jane claims that we, as an industry, prefer to try and solve our cyber security problems via technology, that we tend to hire mainly males with a military, mathematical, or science background, that we need people who think differently, and women are the best candidates for that.
Now, who would argue against it, or, why the heck do I write the review?
I decided to review Jane’s book because the subject is important, and because I felt that the sources used to strengthen the argument in the book should be scrutinised for their accuracy.
We don’t really know what the best path to take in cybersecurity, artificial intelligence. We do know that our personal, organisational, and cultural survival depends on our ability to adjust ourselves to that unknown, that chaos, that is already here. My thoughts and comments on Jane’s book are in a hope that perhaps an integration of the information will occur, that the notion of diversity will be taken for the beauty, wonderful, and horrific elements they install. This is not a criticism of the intention of Jane, which I’m sure is driven by love, but because peer review is required. This is an attempt to get away from biases that control our frames of references, to experience beyond them. To seek the truth.
Dragons… here I come.
The wonderful Jonathan Haidt recently said in an interview that “Our role as scholars is our duty to the truth – we must never say things that are false, or allow others to say things that we think are false, because we’re afraid (that) if we challenge them we’ll get into trouble.”
Jordan Peterson once said in one of his talks:
“If you codify the rules by which a society might function, is there something within the structure of the rules, that rises above them, that acts as the fundamental principle from which they all derive? it’s the ultimate question of human ethics – what is the highest principle?
… (and the answer is) …
Aim at the highest possible good that you can conceive of. Whatever that is that you can conceive of. That serves as “your god”, for all intense and purposes. Having aligned yourself with that good, speak the truth and see what happens…
Whatever the truth reveals *is* the best of all possible worlds, regardless of how it appears to you now…”
If you ever experienced hell you know why I write.
About the book, by the author
“Women are fundamentally different to men and, when it comes to cybersecurity, one thing is certain. . .IF YOU’RE SHORT ON WOMEN YOU’RE LESS SAFE. Women matter in cybersecurity because of the way they view and deal with risk. Typically, women are more risk averse, compliant with rules, and embracing of organisational controls and technology than men. They’re also extremely intuitive and score highly when it comes to emotional and social intelligence, which enables them to remain calm during times of turbulence – a trait that’s required when major security breaches and incidents occur. As cybercrime, terrorism and warfare is increasing, and the number of women in cybersecurity is declining, now is the time to take action. By combining stories, interviews and data with practical advice, the golden rules and checklists, IN Security provides the means to turn things around. When you read this book you’ll understand why the numbers of women have fallen, along with strategies for attracting, identifying, and retaining more women in cybersecurity. This book is essential reading for anyone in cybersecurity or looking to get into it.” (amazon book description)
“If you only read one chapter in this book, make it this one.” (Introduction)
Why was book written?
Jane’s book followed a LinkedIn post she wrote in 2015, and the conversations she had as a result of it. In the post she said that we need to reverse the gender gap because of economics. She mentioned a report by McKinsey & Co. entitled ‘The Power of Parity’, in which the authors claimed that a full gender equality would add 26%, or $28 trillion, to global gross domestic product (GDP) in 2025. She referred to a report written by the ‘national center for women & information technology’, and states that gender-diverse teams are more productive, innovative and able to stay on schedule, and within budget, compared to homogeneous teams. She tells us that when women are leading businesses the GDP goes up, diversity in workspace goes up, charities support goes up, and societies are more stable.
The Power of Parity
Let’s start with the McKinsey report, the power of parity. McKinsey website provides a video that encapsulates in it many of the problems in the report itself. If you find discrepancies between the video and the report itself, ask yourself why McKinsey allow it to be.
The video starts by saying “A girl born in the UK today, starts life from a position of relative equality compared to boys. But as they grow up, differences start to emerge”.
Let’s stop here for a second. What does it mean “starts life from a position of relative equality compared to boys” – Does girls being transferred into a “baby-girls-only” rooms?
” …but as they grow up, differences start to emerge”
The report itself states that the following activities should be taken to tackle the topic of “social attitude”:
“Changing social attitudes means addressing gender stereotypes in all media and across all ages and demographics, including tracking the impact of efforts to improve gender parity. Specific steps should include supporting campaigns that help build girls’ self-esteem, promoting positive images of women in advertising, and improving the balance of women in the media, with a particular focus on fostering greater visibility for female experts.”
Here’s an alternative view.
In an article called “Culture and Achievement” the author showed that families shape their children’s prospects more profoundly than anything government can do. Here’s a quote about Finland:
“More recently, however, the arrival of immigrants from the developing world has begun to transform the country’s demography. Their numbers remain small—in 2009, only 4 percent of Finland’s PISA students were foreign-born, compared with 17 percent in Sweden. But their performance thus far is dismaying. Despite the country’s policy of subsidizing the schooling of immigrant children, these children are more likely to drop out and score significantly below native-born Finnish students on all PISA tests. Finland has relatively few low-performing students among its native-born population. The country’s proportion of low-performing immigrant students, however, is high: 29 percent. (Though Ripley doesn’t cite these numbers, she notes that Finnish parents are reluctant to send their kids to schools with immigrant populations of 10 percent or higher.) Experts disagree about whether Finland’s drop in test scores between 2000 and 2009 can be attributed to its rising number of poor immigrant children. Carnoy and Rothstein say that scores have dipped for well-to-do kids, too. But despite doing everything right, Finland is having a tough time educating the children of low-skilled immigrant parents.”
One can claim that the definition of “relative equality” as well as “differences starts to emerge” really depends on your parents and their direct cultural background. It means that the real conversation is not about the image of women in the media, but about which cultures provides best opportunities to girls/women if we don’t want to impact the girls’ ability to choose what they want. To do means to criticise Europe approach to multiculturalism, and the impact it created on women possibilities to have equal opportunities.
I don’t know if Jane was aware of the above, but it is dangerous to even say it in our current PC climate. Talking about it outcasts you as a far-right, and sales figures would have been the least of any author problems, with postmodernist and Social Justice Warriors (SJW) making an author’s life a living hell, social media demonetisation, perhaps even police investigations.
Let’s continue with the video, that says:
“The choices she makes in school starts to limit her opportunities“.
Do they mean “the choices made for her in school”? Do they mean like they do in Afghanistan? Of course not! Don’t be silly! It can’t be. After all, women don’t go to school in Afghanistan…
In a free society we are supposed to allow people to choose freely in our society. Is the report implying (or, as Cathy Newman would have said “What you’re saying is”) that now we don’t want to give girls a free choice and we want to push them into what they might not want to do?
Let’s take Sweden as an example. Sweden is a country dominated for decades by a social-democratic system, with a heavy focus on the “feminism” and women’s rights. Sweden women suffrage (right to vote) took place in 1921, and since then the society is focused on this equality of opportunity between men and women. The country even has a “feminist government”. And yet, when you look at what men & women have chosen, here is the numbers:
“Gender segregation persists in the field of study. Young men rarely pursue studies in health and welfare (where they are 17% of the graduates, 8 percentage points below the OECD average); while young women make up only 24% of the graduates in computer sciences and 29% of those in engineering.” (source: “closing the gender gap – Sweden”, OECD)
The point I wanted to make: even when women grow in society where there the whole education system is focused on not limiting their opportunities, we still far from 50/50.
Let’s continuing with the video:
“once a woman started her career, inequalities in STEM…” and then we are being shown graph of % of women in STEM – 13 for every 100 men.
- The video tells us that in STEM there are 13 women for 100 men, or 13/113, or 11.5% of workforce.
- However, the number according to this report states that “Women make up 23% of those in core STEM occupations in the UK and 24% of those working in core STEM industries.”
But perhaps the most disturbing manipulation is the following point, showed on the screen “29% experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime“, while the voiceover tells us “Her future can be affected by gender-based violence, and high levels of teenage pregnancy, just to name a few”.
I was exposed to extreme violence as a child, by other kids. I know few women, who did really well in STEM, and they been sexually abuse as girls. What’s the relationship between the two? Correlation is not causation.
Sexual violence seems to be correlated with Islam. For example, in the UK, gangs targeting the sexual assault of girls are 84% Muslim compared to just 7% of population. but we are being told that correlation is not causation in that case. Why is it the case when it comes for women career choices?
Jane claims the reason why we need women in information security is because, as Bruce Schneier said, that the relationships between people, process and technology in our industry are not optimised. She says that we, as an industry, prefer to try and solve our issues via technology, and that we tend to hire mainly males with a military, mathematical, or science background. She claims that we need people who think differently, and women are the best candidates for that.
I agree on that point completely, but what evidence does we have women that choose to work in cybersecurity will think differently?
Jane mentions in her introduction a 2015 research done in Israel using MRI scans, that showed that only 6 out of 100 people have a consistent single-sex structure, while all the others is a mixed brain structures.
If I may:
- Sexual differentiation of the genitals takes place in the first two months of pregnancy and sexual differentiation of the brain starts in the second half of pregnancy (source: “Sexual differentiation of the human brain in relation to gender identity and sexual orientation”, I. Savic, 2010). It’s obvious men and women will have similar structure, as our brains only differentiate at a later state of the pregnancy.
- The source Jane quotes (WedMD) is a very weak source – it’s an article which summarises the differences between male and females.
- The REAL research paper is actually called “Sex beyond the genitalia: The human brain mosaic”, by D. Joel et al.
- What the paper tells us is that there is an extensive overlap between the distributions of females and males for all grey matter, white matter, and connections assessed, that analysis of internal consistency reveals that brains with features that are consistently at one end of the “maleness-femaleness” continuum are rare. The research suggests that most brains are comprised of unique “mosaics” of features, some more common in females compared with males, some more common in males compared with females, and some common in both females and males.
- As an exercise, I invite you to try and find where did the WedMD writer came up with the “6 out of 100” claim. Hint – it’s not even mentioned in the abstract.
- The methodology used was criticized in “Yes, there is a female and a male brain: Morphology versus functionality” (2016, M. Glezerman), where the author stated that: “conclusion cannot be drawn based on the methodology used. MRIs are “still images.” Looking at these is more akin to examining a road map and drawing conclusions about traffic patterns. Other imaging methods might have yielded different results”. It adds and state that “one cannot morphologically distinguish between a male and a female brain like one can concerning male and female genitalia. Whenever the terms “female brain” and “male brain” are used, the intention should be functional and not morphological, qualitative and not quantitative.”
- There is a response to that article, here, which I will let you read, if you care.
The “take home” message is that when you choose a research that supports your findings it is worth investigating the original research and follow up publications, because our brains are more complicated than any model we came up with to describe them. As David Eagleman wrote in his book, Incognito, the human brain is like an alien spaceship to us.
Side notes: We practically have two brains – right and left hemisphere are very different in the way they process the world. But that’s for another article.
Janes say in the book that “According to researchers, women produce 52% less serotonin than men, which may indicate why they have more of a tendency to worry than men.”. A link to the research was not mention, should be mentioned (here).
I would like to expand here a bit:
- We know that there are 4 major characteristics associated with autism:
- low concentrations of serotonin in the brain and its elevated concentrations in tissues outside the blood-brain barrier;
- low concentrations of the vitamin D hormone precursor 25-hydroxyvitamin D [25(OH)D3];
- high male prevalence of autism; and
- presence of maternal antibodies against fetal brain tissue.
(“Vitamin D hormone regulates serotonin synthesis. Part 1: relevance for autism.”, Patrick & Ames, 2014)
- We know that “Inadequate levels of vitamin D (∼70% of the population) and omega-3 fatty acids are common, suggesting that brain serotonin synthesis is not optimal.” (source)
- Women have lower levels of Vitamin D compared to males (source)
- There is a prevalence of vitamin D inadequacy amongst women with osteoporosis (source)
- Vitamin D deficiency is a global health problem caused mainly by insufficient exposure to sunlight (source),
The research Jane quoted and keep on being quoted by many was performed in Montreal – not the sunniest place on the planet, which for sure make sense why women there have lower levels of serotonin there. But even in Canada, the suicide ratio between men and women for 100K of population are 3 times more men then women. This is similar to Finland as well. Also, one would have expected to have lower levels of autism in sunny countries, which we don’t.
Correlation is not causation.
Then, Jane moves to testosterone, the main sex hormone for men. She claims it is “associated with aggression, impulsivity, single mindedness, independence, a lack of cooperation, power, winning, and risk taking.”
First, if we talk about aggression, Nicki R. Crick showed that boys and girls are equally aggressive. Boys are more physical aggressive, girls were significantly more relationally aggressive than were boys. Results also indicated that relationally aggressive children may be at risk for serious adjustment difficulties (e.g., they were significantly more rejected and reported significantly higher levels of loneliness, depression, and isolation relative to their non-relationally aggressive peers). I have seen women using social violence in work space, but because it’s harder to quantify vs. physical violence they can get away with it. I’ve been a victim of such violence, and I’ve witnessed women using social violence against other female and male work colleagues.
Let’s talk about testosterone.
Robert M. Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, was asked the following question, about the role of testosterone:
“If (testosterone is) … not related to aggression, but it’s related to an increased reward for status, where does it act in the brain? Then, given that so many kids may suffer especially these days with impacts in the brain that might affect their aggression as adults…would a pharmaceutical route be at all suggested before they get before any kind of cognitive training?”.
Here is professor Sapolsky response:
“Which part of the brain has the most receptors for testosterone the most sensitivity to? … the amygdala. The amygdala is ground zero for sensitivity to testosterone. Does testosterone cause amygdala neurons to fire, to in effect, invent aggressive outputs? not at all. If, and only if, the neurons are already firing, testosterone makes them fire faster. Testosterone does not turn on the martial music, it ups the volume if it’s already been turned on.
Now in terms of “okay, so let’s make the world a much better place here… what about if we pharmacologically block some of the effects of testosterone?”
What you see there, besides it being mighty scary, is a track record of not working very well. In a number of places on earth, the two places where it is most been explored is big surprise: India and the state of Texas. There has been state ordered chemical castration, drugs which are given which block testosterone receptors, which is, in effect, the equivalent of removing testosterone from the scene, usually for intractably violent sexual offenders. What the literature shows is: essentially it has no effect whatsoever, because such aggression has very little to do with aggression, has very little to do with sexuality, (it) has a whole lot to do with domination and fear and issues like that.
Pertinent to that: you take any male on earth of any known species and take out his testes, and that almost certainly was the first experiment ever done in endocrinology, about ten thousand years ago, when some bull chased some people around the backyard one time too many, and they wrestled him down and got rid of the testes and suddenly he was a much more tractable male. If you castrate a male of any species out there on the average levels of aggression go down. They never go down to zero though, and the critical thing is: the more experienced that male had being aggressive prior to castration, the more it’s going to stay there afterward. In other words, the more experience you have with aggression, the less it is dependent on hormones and the more it is a function of social learning. So that, unfortunately or otherwise, is not much of a panacea there.
The Power of Surveys
Jane gives an example to the fact women are more risk averse then women by quoting a research done by a Norwegian company called CLTRe (2017 Security Culture Report, Roer and Petrič, 2017). The research seems to suggest that women comply with regulation, and embrace organisational controls and technology more than men. The research itself was based on a survey that was filled by over 10,000 people, which is without doubt highly impressive.
The way the research used to try and validate dangerous behaviour is challenging. Since it’s a survey the method you can use is simulation – you ask a person questions either about their knowledge or their behaviour and based on their answers you try to identify their decision making. Here are few challenges that raises due to this methodology:
- What you ask and how you ask it defines the way the person who answer the question will response to them. Words can be important. Language that suggest a risk can look as a challenge to one person and a risk to another
- It is also true for when people answer (time of day) the state of the person who answered it.
- What people answer and what they do are totally different things, and surveys do not always represent actual behaviour in “live” situations. The survey itself that states women comply with regulations, but as you can read here (or here), and here, and here, this does not always translate to correct behaviour in reality.
I know a female director, highly educated STEM graduated, that once said in a meeting that the technological upgrade project she submitted for approval has “zero risk”. This makes statements such as “women act more securely than men” to require more scrutiny.
I have the same concerns about the validity of the finding of the next research Jane is mentioning. The Hide My Ass (privacy VPN solution provider) used a survey. Worse, the finding was never submitted for peer review, and frankly it’s very hard to find it online anymore.
I think I will finish here. After all, I can go on and continue to critically analyse all the claims in the book, but frankly I don’t have the time to do so. I think a more scrutinising editor could have provided a great input here, but it is a challenge to find people in the field who can do it and are willing to do it. I know it is true for my own writing as well.
Yes, men and women are different, driven by millions upon millions upon millions of years of evolution, social life of primates, and cultural influences. If you have kids you already know that one child is different from another. Sure, we can force kids to do things they don’t like – and we do it all the time – but the decision on what are the “rules of engagement” when it comes to intervention into young being growth should be driven by truth and wisdom, not by facts that are questionable and by our limited knowledge of reality.
Perhaps the only major criticism I had about the book was the fact it didn’t include any reference to one of the most common ways for researchers describes personality traits – via the big five personality traits, known as OCEAN:
- Openness (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)
- Conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless)
- Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved/introversion)
- Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. challenging/detached); and
- Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident)
Each of us have different levels of openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism, ranging from extreme high to extreme negative.
Jane’s book does not include any reference to the big five, and thus leaves us to try to cope with statements about personality traits which are hard to measure or provide constructive criticism.
I do love the statement Jane makes in her book “It’s about it being OK to be different, and celebrating diversity as a strength.” Which I truly hold precious. Throughout my career I always tried to maintain an inclusive approach, especially to people I was responsible of managing. But how can people say “It’s about it being OK to be different, and celebrating diversity as a strength” when in reality anyone who question the fact women and men are different and that there might be a reason why women prefer not to dedicate themselves to a career focused on technology is viewed as misogynistic? Technology have a dark side, like everything in this world. We all are creatures of light and darkness, of good and bad. Perhaps women are better in identifying the vast loneliness technology creates, and avoid it on subconscious levels? We need to have an open conversation, we are talking about lives of young people who might be influenced by our actions.
Let us be brave, aim for good, tell the truth, and let the universe unfold.
“You support free speech because it’s the mechanism that maintain the sanity of the individual and society. And you live in relationship to the spoken truth to the best of your ability, because the alternative is hell.” (Jordan B. Peterson)
Happy international women’s day everyone!
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