Women in Cybersecurity and STEM

Women in Cybersecurity and STEM

Shelley Jack, integrated marketing communications professor at St. Bonaventure University, interviews New Zealand artificial intelligence and STEM advocate Mahsa Mohaghegh to discuss her career in STEM. Ms. Mohaghegh is a professor at Auckland University of Technology and runs a tech networking platform for women, She#.

Shelley Jack: Mahsa, thank you so much for joining me today. In talking a little bit about women in STEM and in cybersecurity. As you know, we have a program in a master's degree online in cybersecurity and you've already been very gracious in giving us your time when you came to visit, last year, I believe it was, to share a little bit about your experiences as a woman in this field. You have once again given your time with us in chatting with me a little bit about this area and some of the challenges, as well as some of the opportunities.

So, thank you again for that and if you don't mind just jumping right in with me. Could you give a brief introduction of yourself? Your background and how you arrived in this field?

Mahsa Mohaghegh: Thank you so much, Shelley, for having me here. It was fantastic, it was almost two years ago when I was at the University. It was a great memory, it was a great time and I really hope to revisit it again. So, your invitation just brought back so many great memories, and it's an honor to really talking to you, and hopefully connect with your students and faculty.

Shelley Jack: Oh, thank you.

Mahsa Mohaghegh: So, you want me to introduce myself and my role here in New Zealand?

Shelley Jack: Yes.

Mahsa Mohaghegh: Sure. I'll tell you a little bit about that. So, as you introduced me, my name is Mahsa Mohaghegh. I am a Director of Women in Technology at AUT and also a senior lecturer at Auckland University of Technology in Auckland, New Zealand. I’ll give you a little bit about my journey and how I ended up doing what I'm doing today. I began my journey in technology in 2000, with a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering and later a master’s degree. I think after a year working in industry, I decided to pursue further education and I began to study a PhD in computer engineering.

But, in the field of artificial intelligence and natural language processing. On completion of my degree, I began a career in academia. So, where I'm currently teaching, supervising, researching several different areas of computer science. I'm also founder and director of non- for- profit, woman networking and learning group called She Sharp.

Shelley Jack: Yes, thank you. I was enjoying looking through the She Sharp’s site. I wouldn't want to have to say that too many times. Could you share a little bit about the organization and its goals?

Mahsa Mohaghegh: Sure. She Sharp as I mentioned, it's a networking platform for women in technology. The purpose of it, is really empowering women in the STEM field, but I founded She Sharp in 2014 as a small group of about 20 people. Our objective was and still today is to address the gender imbalance in tech, and to remove all those usual barriers, and the stereotypes. Ideally, we really want to promote equal opportunities for all genders to study tech.

We hold about eight to 10 events every year, usually hosted at ICT companies, and the events help to promote a STEM field to high school girls. Helping them to make contact with female role models in industry, because I'm a great believer that you can be who you can see. So, this is really important for us and I never had a role model when I was a study in high school. So, this is one of our goals and we also show students the reality of day to day operation in ICT company, what kind of people are really there, as opposed to who they might think that fits the stereotype. But overall, I think we want to encourage young women to consider possible future study options and career paths in tech.

Shelley Jack: Yeah, that's amazing. You mentioned, of course, this gender imbalance in tech. Could you speak to why that happens and what you think are some of the solutions? I know that's a really big question, but why does it happen and how do we go about fixing it?

Mahsa Mohaghegh: I think the main reason for it, it is perception. I think what I can tell you about it is, my mind behind that and how I felt when I was a student. So, I was always part of minority, when I did my study in computer engineering, I was one in a class of 50. When, I started lecturing in this field, I noticed in a class of 250 students, I only had 10 girls. This is different year to year, one year was five students.

I think there are many reasons behind it, but one of the main thing and I think despite the importance we see today, being placed on a diversity and inclusion. Particularly in terms of gender equality, there is still some pretty strong stereotypes, that do you hold girls back from their huge potential.

Discouragement is usually subconscious, but it can at the times be worse. Even as a humor, that it tends to lead a perception of who should work in technology fields.

So, even a simple comment by a misinformed parent to their daughter, that a job in a computer science is for boys, is enough to plant this idea in their head, that they are not really good for this field. Also, a popular media portrays is stereotypical image in many films. That a computer expert in action movies, is usually a nerdy quirky guy with glasses, sitting in a dark room with hoodies.

Mahsa Mohaghegh: All these stereotypical images end up soaking into mind of our young girls and they end up with wildling conceptions around the STEM fields.

Shelley Jack: How about also for women who are currently in the workplace? Maybe women who are working in tech or working on the outskirts of tech? Because, it feels like everything we do, I was sharing with you before we started the recording. That I work in marketing, but so much of what we do now is focused on data and making meaning from data. So, what about some of these peripheral women who are interested in careers in tech?

Because the gap is so big, that while it's really important, of course, to encourage young women and girls. Why do you think this happens with women who are maybe interested in pursuing degrees in cybersecurity, or artificial intelligence, computer engineering? But, they're in their job, but they're a little bit nervous to go to the next level. What is some of that environment that you think that keeps them from moving forward?

Mahsa Mohaghegh: I think the best thing to do in this case, is to make our industry contacts in this field and ideally other women through their networking events. If they can talk to other people that, they're thinking about changing the career or jumping in this. I can't really stress importance of networking enough here. Finding a mentor is also a must, someone they can trust, someone who has experience, whose opinion they value, it's really important.

So, they can talk to the people who are actually working in this field and hear from them. They can actually see themselves, that they can be one of them. It is nothing more important like giving them opportunity to try and experience technology for themselves. The way that we are pitching technology today is very different, because I think what is really important for women specifically. They really want to be part of the group, that is trying to make other people life easier, to solve problems.

So I even saw that some of the jobs, ads on internet and newspaper. That they were putting words like we're looking for a ninja coder. So as a woman, I don't want to be a ninja coder. So, I really want to just help solve problems. So, I think we have to be very careful, mindful of how we approach and how we pitch this field to our woman. I think the best thing for them would be really having that networking opportunity and talking with mentor, to find out more about opportunities.

So, one of the things we really do with She Sharp is, we're giving them this opportunity to talk to real people. That was very successful in terms of really changing their mindset about the field. We started seeing that some of them even, they had the career changes that they decided to come to the tech and that was really amazing for us. But, what prompted me to start She Sharp, was an appreciation and understanding of what girls and young women face in this industry. At the moment, I think women who decide to enter tech sector are immediately a minority.

Shelley Jack: Yeah.

Mahsa Mohaghegh: Being part of the minority sometimes is really daunting. Within a field, there are misconceptions, stereotypes, inequalities that women have to deal with every day. Knowing this, I really wanted to start an organization that could provide them with some level of support.

Shelley Jack: How do you think women are uniquely suited to help solve some of these incredible technology challenges that we're facing today?

Mahsa Mohaghegh: I think firstly in an equal population, both women and men are consumers of technology. I think it is at very least reasonable to ensure that this same proportion is presented in technology development space. I think it's been widely proven that diversity improves business performances. No one can really ignore the evidence of the benefit, that balance diverse workplaces they can bring. So, they can increase productivity, they can increase efficiency and they can enhance innovation.

It has been shown that the companies with the gender diverse team. Constantly they outperformed those with the gender imbalance. So much so, that venture capital's, VCs. They've even gone as far as to say that they won't invest in any startup, unless it has a gender diverse executive team. I think the key is recognizing the benefits that diversity and inclusion bring in to the sector. So, this is really key to know.

Shelley Jack: Yeah, I appreciate that and I've seen that a lot myself. It's sad that we have to put these measures in place that make requirements where there shouldn't even be a need for requirements.

Mahsa Mohaghegh: True.

Shelley Jack: To be pursuing diversity, because we should just be doing it, right? So, I think that's really important.

Mahsa Mohaghegh: I think of course, employers, they have to choose people with the right skills for the job. But, if they don't understand the benefit of diversity, then they can miss out on advantage that group can bring to their team.

Shelley Jack: Yeah. In fairness to organizations, that is part of the challenge. I know I have a friend and colleague in Costa Rica, who has a website design firm and she has had people from the outside come in and say," Well, you're a woman who owns a web development firm. Where are all the women? Why haven't you hired more women?" She said, "Because I can't, they're simply not available to me." It's more than just, “Get into this field, because it's a great opportunity." There's reasons for it, right?

I think that's a part of what you're getting at and I also think as women... You were talking about these unconscious or subconscious things that happen, that discourage people from these fields. It creates a lack of confidence, that you think you can't enter into something that's so technical or you won't be taken seriously. So, I think that women have a lot of hesitations that men necessarily wouldn't be thinking through in this field, because it just isn't part of their reality.

I was watching something that you had said about," You might be good at something that you never knew you could be good at." It made me think about, if you don't have a role model, then you're going to have to create the role model yourself. The importance of being the leader that you wish you had and that whole concept.

I think that's part of what you're talking about here too, is that women need to go for it and then that gets back to your idea of the importance of networking. Because, the way that we are able to do that, the way we feel empowered, not always, but sometimes is because," Oh, wait, there are other people like me." Right? That are doing this. I think that's so much part of the force and momentum that you're creating, which is wonderful. Thank you again for participating in that and being a leader in that regard, it's wonderful.

Could you share a little bit about, as you have been a minority in this field. There are also things about that that are exceptionally satisfying and what are some of those things in your mind? Could you speak to those as a way to encourage women who may be a little bit uncertain about if they should enter into this field?

Mahsa Mohaghegh: Back to your point, it is really important for me that our next generation, they make an informed decision about who they want to be and what they want to do. This is my message all the time, give yourself opportunity to try new things. You never know you're really good at something, if you don't really try it. I think this is the main point, we as women, we tend to just think that we are not good at it, this is not for me. But, this is not true and I saw it when last year, we had a workshop with a group of high school students.

So, we went to school and we had that workshop around designing a game for mobile app. The very first question I ask the students that, "Do you like coding?" The answer was obvious," No." I said, "We're not going to do any coding today, but how about game? Do you like creating game?" Some of them, yes and some of them no. And I said, “What about music? They said," Yep, we all love music." And I said, “What about we design our own piano today?" So, we designed the whole workshop for hour and a half, two hours.

But after 45 minutes our girls, they managed to create a piano app game on a phone. There was nothing more satisfying than playing the piano, using their own phone and they have something to take back and show their parents. At the end of it I told them," What you've done today was purely coding and you create your own game." So, this is the element that we are really proud of it, She Sharp organization, because our events usually have two parts into it.

So the first part, is hearing from people who are working in this field. Usually, some of the senior leaders or engineers that they are doing, the great work that they do. They were just telling not all about the good things, but they're telling about challenges, just being part of minority, sometimes wasn't good. Sometimes it has actually worked very well for them. So they're sharing this information. The second part of our events are usually hands on practical. So, we usually give them some very short introduction of what we want to do, but then when we get them to do it, but in their teamwork's.

At the end of it, they hopefully make or create something and then we let them to decide if tech is the right career path for them or not. My wish is that, all our next generation to make an informed decision about what they want to do. So, I don't want them to just pursue what other people see that they are capable of doing it on. I want them they believe that they're capable of doing the things that they had an opportunity to try. So, this is why that sometimes you'll have the chance to work with other groups to discover what you're really like and interested in.

But, sometimes you have to be willing to put yourself in a situation to try new things and usually magic happens there.

Shelley Jack: Yeah. I like what you're describing, because it's experiential, it's also practical. So, there's the application that you demonstrate, but it's also very much a social and relational experience as you interact with other people. I think part of the challenge also in STEM and technology, and fields like cybersecurity. Is that, women have a perception that what they may be doing is not human, it lacks this very significant relational component to it.

But, this global pandemic and crisis that we have all experienced, I think, is a great example of how technology can unite us, and how it's exceptionally human, and can be exceptionally relational. So I think that, that's another piece of this. That's the lack of education, is that we don't really understand," Okay, what does this kind of career mean for me?

What experiences will I have? Because, I don't want to be the person that's just sitting behind a computer and never talks to anyone." Right? So, I think that is also a big challenge and part of what you're talking about is that. It is very relational, the experience of doing what you're doing in She Sharp, the networking, that relationship component of the field is very much alive and exists. Isn't that fair?

Mahsa Mohaghegh: It is definitely. What you mentioned, sometimes really it is not an easy situation for some group of people. But what we need to know, as you mentioned, especially right now with the pandemic situation that they'll see all around the world. It is uncomfortable, but we have to getting used to that and it is really important getting comfortable with uncomfortable. That is very true. I remember the very first few days of the lockdown, I didn't really know what to do, but now I'm comfortable.

It wasn't easy, but you have to accept it, you have to adopt and you will see over time that you can actually just feeling comfortable without uncomfortable. That become a new norm for you, a new normal.

Shelley Jack: Yeah, that's a wonderful point, I feel the same. It's amazing how adaptable we can be, right?

Mahsa Mohaghegh: True.

Shelley Jack: Last question I wanted to ask, and then certainly please feel free to share anything else that you would like to. But, I did want to ask. Is there any counsel or advice that you would give to someone who is thinking about something as significant as a masters? They want to take the next step, perhaps in a tech field and in getting promoted, they are hesitant, man or woman, of course.

What are some of the things that you would say to encourage them, especially in a time like now? Yeah, there's an incredible demand, but what else?

Mahsa Mohaghegh: I think it might sound quite cliché, but you need to believe in yourself, believe you're worth it and break free of any imposter syndrome, that can possibly holding you back. I can emphasize again on mentor, mentor will be able to help you here, you never too old, or you never too experienced to have mentor. So, it's really important to find a right person to help you through this and give yourself the opportunity to learn new things.

So, things are changing very fast these days and you have to really catch up with technology. The future of work, it's really depends on us and how we are up scaling ourselves today. 85% of jobs in 2030, they don't exist yet and we’re getting ready for these new skillsets. You can imagine how difficult our job is at university. So, we are really trying to train the students for jobs that we don't have any idea about.

What we know for sure, that technology impacting our world and the workplace for big part of it. So we ought to make sure that we are upper scaling with the right skillsets for future of works.

Shelley Jack: Yeah, wonderful. Thank you so much, I really appreciate your time and if there's anything else that you would like to share, I welcome you to do that. I don't want to just throw a bunch of questions at you. If there's anything I've overlooked, please feel free.

Mahsa Mohaghegh: Thank you so much for this opportunity. I really enjoyed our talk and I really hope to visit St. Bonaventure and see the students, and work with the students again in future, hopefully after everything settle down here. So, I'll just wish them all good health, and stay safe, and hopefully we'll see each other on the other side.

Shelley Jack: Yes. Mahsa, thank you so much again, we really appreciate it.

Mahsa Mohaghegh: Thank you.