Women Could Bridge the Silicon Valley/DC Divide in Cybersecurity

by Andrea Little Limbago

Limbago blog picture
Photo: Philip Jean-Pierre, Endgame

As the government shutdown loomed large in 2013, Senator Susan Collins, a Republican, introduced a budget plan that she believed would garner bi-partisan support. Within a few days, two other female Republican Senators signed on, as did two female Democratic Senators. Eventually, the bipartisan group reached 13 members, and many policy leaders credit the avoidance of a government shutdown to the strong, bipartisan leadership exhibited by these five women. Senator John McCain commented several times, “The women are taking over.”

Given the toxic and overly partisan environment in Congress over the last few years, bridging this divide was an enormous feat, and perhaps can provide a good lesson for bridging another divide – the one between the Silicon Valley tech community and the DC national security community. This divide is especially pronounced in cybersecurity. The public and private sectors face the same digital threats, and yet issues like privacy and encryption continue to hinder collaboration and breed mistrust between the communities. However, they do share one thing in common – women face similar obstacles in each industry. These common challenges and experiences may represent an opportunity for shrinking the DC/Silicon Valley cultural divide, and increasing collaboration to tackle the shared and increasingly sophisticated threats in the cyber domain.

In early February, President Obama visited Stanford University, in the heart of Silicon Valley, to encourage greater partnership between the public and private sectors in the cybersecurity domain, one of the most prominent national security threats of this era. While this certainly is a step in the right direction, there are embedded cultural and institutional differences that continue to hinder cooperation between the tech and national security communities. This divide is perpetuated at industry-specific conferences, in academia, and even in the workplace, all of which tend to deter collaboration across these disciplines. Even when these formal barriers are overcome, the informal linguistic and cultural barriers between the engineering-dominant tech community and the international relations and foreign policy-dominant community persist. Each field communicates with industry specific jargon, which often leads even well-intentioned individuals to speak past each other and fail to find common ground. Together, these hurdles manifest at the highest level and cannot be ignored when identifying solutions for greater cybersecurity public/private partnership.

While it may seem these two worlds could not be further apart, Silicon Valley and the DC-based national security community do share one unfortunate commonality that continues to make headlines – the disproportionately small number of women in each field. In each industry, the gender gap is quite pronounced, and even expanding depending on the metric. For instance, close to half of the largest Silicon Valley public companies do not have any female representation on their boards, and a similar gender gap exists in the ranks of CEOs. While there are slowly more women in leadership positions, the number of women in computer science has been on the decline since the mid 1980s. Similarly, the Department of Defense has never had a female Secretary, and women comprise just 16{5f0f57c44bc297437706deade099e6516fe1db1b31ab604b564d60e47f160dcd} of total Army soldiers. Moreover, women hold less than 30{5f0f57c44bc297437706deade099e6516fe1db1b31ab604b564d60e47f160dcd} of leadership positions in government, military and think tanks. Just as women in computer science tend to slowly leave the discipline, women in political science are more likely to drop out during graduate school, and although they make up 40{5f0f57c44bc297437706deade099e6516fe1db1b31ab604b564d60e47f160dcd} of Assistant Professors, women only comprise 19{5f0f57c44bc297437706deade099e6516fe1db1b31ab604b564d60e47f160dcd} of full professors. The numbers are even worse for international relations, where three-quarters of the faculty are men, who also have the advantage in citations, a key metric for promotion. Finally, the women who persist in each of these industries often face prejudice and inhospitable work environments, as a recent Newsweek cover story described in great detail about Silicon Valley, and is a similar impetus for the Military Justice Improvement Act.

Given these disconcerting statistics, women have turned to formal organizations to meet, mentor and support other women in their field. Women in the tech community have responded by creating chapters across the country focused on encouraging women to remain within the various STEM related fields. Groups like Girls Who Code and TechBridge as well as women in tech meet-up groups help bring women and girls together to provide mentorship, support, and encouragement.  Another example is The Club (Connect, Lead, Unite, Build), a San Francisco and Silicon Valley based organization whose mission is to connect women leaders in a supportive and intellectually demanding environment. Similarly, the national security community has many forums, such as WIIS, for highlighting the work of female practitioners. There also are a series of groups, such as Women in Homeland Security, Women’s Foreign Policy Group, and the Business Executives for National Security (BENS) Women in National Security group, that bring together women in the national security community.

As women continue to fight to gain acceptance and a larger presence in each industry, it would be beneficial to bring women from tech and national security together to share stories (both successes and failures), mentor, and provide new insights across disciplines. As literature on innovation and creativity consistently highlights, interdisciplinary collaboration brings new perspectives and approaches to problem solving. This is exactly what is needed when evaluating new ways to increase cybersecurity public/private partnerships, especially when key segments of these industries are located on opposite coasts and face cultural and institutional hurdles to collaboration.

The number of women in the tech and national security communities is already small, and the number of women with a foot in each sector is even smaller. Nevertheless, they exist and perhaps can provide the common framework to bring these two groups together. As technological gaps increasingly differentiate military capabilities in the modern era, areas such as cybersecurity are calling for greater public/private sector partnerships. While there have been summits and various meetings to foster collaboration between these two communities, the divide persists. It’s time for women to formally cross the aisle and lead the way toward bridging this gap. Not only would women in each industry benefit from exchanging lessons learned from their own experiences, but they also could help pave the path toward new solutions and innovations in a national security environment shaped by the dynamic pace of technology.


Dr. Andrea Little Limbago is the Principal Social Scientist at Endgame, a cybersecurity company, where she spends time in both the tech and national security communities. She earned a PhD in political science, and spent almost five years as a quantitative social scientist at the Joint Warfare Analysis Center. 

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