Why Girl Scouts Make Great Cybersecurity Hackers

Jun 16, 2017

Your favorite cookie sellers are in training to become white hat hackers.

On Thursday, Girl Scouts of the USA announced a new partnership with Palo Alto Networks to create a series of cybersecurity badges. The badges, which will be available starting in 2018, can be earned by girls in grades K-12 who demonstrate mastery of Internet security.

Girl Scouts CEO Sylvia Acevedo says that the idea for cybersecurity badges actually came from the scouts themselves; "Y oung girls wanted to know how to make sure they don't get bullied online...older girls want to know how can you prevent cyber attacks."

The organization will offer 18 new badges in total, including ones for the very youngest girls ("daisies") and the eldest ("ambassadors").

"The older girls really want hackathons," Acevedo says.

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The Palo Alto Networks partnership is one of a number of ways Girl Scouts is trying to boost girls' interest in STEM. The organization is trying to shift away from creating content and more towards curating it, says Acevedo. To this end, it is currently piloting partnerships with NASA and toymaker GoldieBlox to create engineering curricula for girls.

While the partnership approach is new, Girl Scouts' emphasis on engineering isn't, Acevedo points out. Two of the very first badges were awarded for mastery of construction and electrical work, she says.

Many former Girl Scouts have gone on to successful careers in STEM. Of the female tech leaders in Silicon Valley, quite a few have been members of the organization, including YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, and Eventbrite CEO Julia Hartz. Moreover, Scouts have flown on over a third of NASA's Space Shuttle missions—including Eileen Collins, the first American woman to command a Space Shuttle.

In the U.S., only about 18% of computer science majors are female, while a mere 10% of information security professionals are women.

Girl Scouts' single-gender, collaborative, mentorship-focused nature makes it a particularly welcoming place for girls' STEM education. Recent research by Accenture and Girls Who Code found that, for girls in middle school (ages 9-11), having a mentor increased the likelihood that a girl would pursue computer science by 16%, and a belief that computer science is "for girls" increased the odds by 25%.

Acevedo stepped into the permanent CEO role earlier this month after serving as interim chief for the past year. She herself has a background in STEM and is (literally) a rocket scientist, having worked at NASA's jet propulsion lab before going onto jobs at IBM and Dell, and launching and selling a software startup. She holds a Master’s degree in Systems Engineering from Stanford University, where she was one of the first Hispanics—male or female—to earn a graduate engineering degree.

One of Girl Scouts' key goals is accessibility, Acevedo says; about a third of the 2.6 million girls come from low-income households and about 400,000 are either black or Hispanic.

"Many of these girls are developing skills that they wouldn't get in school," she says, as few public schools offer courses in robotics, computer science, and financial education. "We're giving these girls the skills they need to be successful in a global marketplace."

Cybersecurity skills are particularly in demand: There are now roughly 300,000 unfilled cybersecurity jobs in the U.S., a figure that is estimated to grow to 1.5 million globally within the next five years.

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