Just when a weekend hacking workshop was about to begin in McLean, Va. last month, a technical glitch and a tell-tale blue screen brought everything to a halt.
“Anyone have a Cat 5 cable?” asked Lisa Foreman-Jiggetts from the front of the gray classroom. Several of the students' laptops had purple covers. Their footwear ranged from gold sandals to sparkly white flip-flops. Purses of many shapes and sizes littered the floor.
Without missing a beat, one of the students, wearing a tiny pink stud in her nose and matching nail polish, quipped, “Now I know what to pack in my purse.” Laughter ensued.
Welcome to the Women’s Society of Cyberjutsu, or WSC for short, where students are encouraged to make comments, ask questions, admit what they don’t know, and take on cyber security with moxie. Although some men have registered for the workshop remotely, the classroom is for women only, according to the society's rules. Exceptions are made for male guest instructors, because, as WSC founder and CEO Foreman-Jiggetts jokes, “They know some stuff too.”
On a beautiful Saturday, two dozen women showed up for a five-hour class. All were here because they wanted to learn more about how to defend digital information from unauthorized access, and preferred an environment in which they weren't the only woman in the classroom.
“This is fun for us, coming here and geeking out,” Foreman-Jiggetts said. “I found that women want to be technical. They want to play with these tools, but they’re not given a chance or don’t know where to start.”
Foreman-Jiggetts is a cyber security contractor for the federal government. She began tinkering with computers when she was a child. She founded the Washington, D.C.-based society because she recognized that there was a lack of resources for women interested in cyber security, and also for what she said were selfish reasons: “I wanted a group that would teach me how to use these very technical tools.”
Like other women in the field, she was used to being one of a few females, if not the only one, in computer classes and hacker groups. She was eager to learn and yearned for a mentor.
“I've seen this myself, being the only woman in a technical class,” she said. “You're talked down to. So one of our main things is to have a comfortable, empowering learning environment.”
The group’s first class—Intro to Linux and Backtrack, the open source operating system—was held two summers ago. A dozen women attended. Today, WSC has 1,500 active participants worldwide and virtual chapters in five other cities. The society holds two workshops per month—one covering a technical area, and one covering soft skills such as résumé-writing—several 10-week certification-preparation classes, and a Cyberjutsu Girls Academy to teach middle-school students about technical subjects. Washington has several women’s tech groups, but Foreman-Jiggetts's is the only one focused on "cyber," as they call it.
Classroom space is donated, and instructors volunteer their time. Foreman-Jiggetts dreams about having a dedicated building to share with other women’s tech groups, so at any given time, one can find hacker space and a handful of classes in state-of-the-art labs, along with laser tag, a café, art gallery and day care center.
According to Foreman-Jiggetts, cyber security is significantly more gender-imbalanced than the information technology industry, which is roughly 30 percent women, she said. She added that women tend to problem-solve differently than men.
Foreman-Jiggetts gets a kick out of playing against what she considers the stereotype of the female hacker—a woman that spends her time holed up in her basement 24/7, looking like a bum. Instead, she leads a group of chatty professional women who get fired up about hacking. “It’s amazing to see them strive,” she said, “coming back month after month. They’re hungry, and they’re very driven. They just need a little help, and they’re off to the races.”
On this day, the workshop's topic was "IPv6 Tracking and Hacking," a reference to the current version of the Internet Protocol. While Foreman-Jiggetts and her instructor ironed out the technical snafu, each student introduced herself and gave her favorite color. More than half said purple.
The women identified themselves by name and current job: computer repair shop technician, law firm tech analyst, electrical engineer, desktop support technician. Many said they were transitioning between careers or getting degrees in cyber security.
Gina Sharp, who has worked in IT for 15 years and recently received a bachelor's degree in cyber security, said the group’s mentoring program and online discussion forum were initially helpful in navigating the field. She has since decided to focus on ethical hacking and penetration testing—trying to infiltrate an organization’s network to make them aware of their vulnerabilities.
Sometimes, Sharp said—her shoulder-length earrings bobbing with every word—she thinks about the other hackers. If she is learning about the vulnerabilities of IPv6, she reasons, so too are the bad guys.
“I think, if they’re learning this, and I’m learning this, what’s the difference between them and me?” she asked. “The difference is intent. That’s the beauty.”
After the class finished introductions, Foreman-Jiggetts announced details of an upcoming hacking competition, a Cyberjutsu awards dinner, the CyberLympics, and several volunteer opportunities. The instructor, Terrence Kimbrough, then introduced himself. “I’m a nerd,” he said. (His favorite color? You guessed it—purple.) Kimbrough is actually a cyber security technician for the government and does the same job as a Marine Corps Reservist. He talked about preparing for the world’s shift from IPv4 to IPv6—and the inevitable new batch of hacks that would arise from it—by leading the students through some exercises with Wireshark, a program that allows you to see network activity at a microscopic level, and an intrusion detection system called Snort.
Kimbrough later said that when he teaches all-female classes, he observes an “air of confidence and self sufficiency that simply isn’t present in a mixed course.” During breaks in this class, he said, he noticed students turning to one another for assistance and lots of “lightbulbs of understanding.”
Victoria Ho, a computer security software company developer, said the workshops have helped her build technical knowledge and confidence. “There is such a wide range of skill level,” she said. “The person sitting to your left can learn from you, and the person sitting to your right can answer all your questions. Everyone is positive, encouraging and non-judgmental.”
As a volunteer for the Cyberjutsu Girls Academy, Ho learned how to program a Raspberry Pi—a single-board computer the size of a credit card—code in the Python programming language, and create an Android application.
“It’s just a whole different atmosphere here,” Foreman-Jiggetts said. “Everyone knows I don't tolerate any negativity. There are no stupid questions you can ask.” To learn among other “chicks” is also great for networking, she added. “We’re doing techie stuff, but it’s fun,” she said. “We’re mingling with like-minded women.”