(Picture is of our Director of Digital Strategy, Kayley Melton, at the age of 14.)
Estimated Reading: 6 minutes
I’m part of a transitional generation of adults who were raised at the dawn of our current “constantly-connected” age. I didn’t grasp the idea of texting “for fun” until college, yet I did grow up around computers.
I was raised in poverty in the Appalachian Mountains, so much of the technology was outdated by the time I got my hands on it. I didn’t care; I was fascinated from the start. Quickly learning to navigate all sorts of computers, systems and environments, my technical skillsets grew and evolved as I tackled new challenges.
I desperately wanted to learn as much as I could about networking, hacking, and computers. For a while, it seemed that it would be the obvious path to take. But it wasn’t long before I, like so many other women in the tech field, felt stalled by sexism.
Discovering Hacking in Middle School
As I approached my awkward middle school years, I began spending more time online to escape my dysfunctional life. I took as many sick days as I could to be home alone on my computer. I would roam the web and chat to people hundreds of miles away over ICQ. I learned HTML / CSS and how to slice images in editing programs to make websites myself. I played MMORPGs, and got into open source software editing.
Around this time, my uncle took a computer certification class so that he could start a local repair business. He offered to pay me to take the courses on networking for him. I took this task seriously, and devoured his course texts so that I could ace tests for him.
My uncle also introduced me to online social engineering techniques and payload downloading. He showed me how to send harmless joke malware to my friends on instant messengers (and keylogging malware to my boyfriends). I got interested in password cracking, but was never able to get too far past educated guesswork.
When I came across the prized, rare piece of hacker literature on the net, I would print it off to study even though I struggled to understand it. I wanted to know more! I just didn’t know what to search for, where to look or who to ask, and wasn’t able to find an entry into the underground hacker community.
9th Grader Desperate to Learn Networking
I felt increasingly isolated from my peers, aware of how “weird” I was in comparison to them. By the time I walked into high school for the first time, my style and opinions had proudly placed me into misfit status. Luckily (despite lots of awkward hovering) I discovered my “outcast” peer group within the first few days.
I tested out of typing class and switched to the A+ Networking class immediately, a class several of my new guy friends were in. I was thrilled by the possibility, and glad to have the chance to work with the (in)famous computer teacher Mr. Eddy*.
At first, I focused hard on the text and networking simulators, learning technical terms and methods so that I could do well on the difficult Cisco tests. I memorized parts, ports, connectors, and cables. I didn’t cheat on the tests, even though it was easily possible. My friends made fun of me for being such a “goody two-shoes.” They were an openly lazy group, casual cheaters who generally found any way possible to get out of classwork.
Yet Eddy considered these slackers his favorites. The guys could often get him to excuse them from other periods just to help install cables or computers in classrooms around the building, tasks they would drag out as long as possible. I overheard Eddy strongly encouraging them to pursue Cisco certifications, despite the fact that these guys never bothered to truly learn anything.
On the other hand, he couldn’t be bothered to remember my name most of the time. In fact, he often called me by the wrong name and dismissed me outright whenever I tried to get him to acknowledge me or ask for help. I couldn’t understand why he never gave me the same offer to take further steps along the information technology path. I demonstrated again and again that I not only knew the material but craved learning more.
It wasn’t until the very end of the year that I was finally (rarely) allowed to assist the guys with those networking missions. But I never got to skip class for it or do these tasks on my own without their supervision.
Technical Experience Disregarded as 10th Grade Female
I felt that I might actually be making a connection with Mr. Eddy, no matter how trivial. But he received a job offer in the spring, and decided to not return as a teacher the next fall. Because of this, the only tech class available to me for the next year was a class in web design, which I happily put onto my schedule. I was intimately familiar with HTML and site building, and had made several websites that were coded by hand.
Unfortunately, the class was being taught by the Art teacher Mr. Kern*, who had never been exposed to web design or information technology in general. On the first day of class, he asked in seriousness that I assist him whenever I could since I had such a strong background in it.
Then Seth* transferred into the class. He had only recently begun delving into the world of website development. He loved to brag about a crappy website he had thrown together in Microsoft Front Page for a local business, the only one he had made at the time.
Kern began to ignore me, increasingly calling on and deferring to Seth’s supposed wisdom. I was overlooked, given a “mansplaining,” or made the butt of jokes when I would try to add to the discussion or correct something that Seth had gotten wrong. Kern even put Seth in charge of me as a group leader on a website creation project, telling me that I should quietly bow to whatever Seth wanted to do, to fully comply with him since he had “lots of experience.”
It was around this time that I decided to stop caring and chose instead to fade into the background. I aced the tests without studying for them, and spent my time in class wandering around the internet like everyone else.
The Final Surrender to My Gender
By the end of my 10th grade year, we had a new technology teacher to replace Mr. Eddy, but I refused to take any of his classes. I was outspoken about how superficial these classes were, and infuriated by his inappropriate flirtations with female students. He was more focused on winning student love than teaching relevant information (especially when it came to women). When people in my circle would rave about him, I would question them directly about what they had learned lately and they would admit they hadn’t learned much of anything.
Eventually, the teacher created a program that had students from his classes “on staff” at all times for troubleshooting technology issues that arose. This sounds good in theory, but in reality it became a way for his favorites to stay out of class as much as possible: the inner circle of dudes competing in first-person shooter LAN parties, the prized teen girls sitting on his lap.
It was at this point that I truly gave up on my dream of going into the tech field.
I was tired of coming up against this brick wall that I felt stood between me and networking or hacking. I was sick of trying to learn from people who were supposed to be mentors, only to have them completely discount me based on my gender. I continued to work with web development and graphics as a hobby since it was easy and fun, but vowed that I would never become a web developer or graphic designer.
There’s something about saying you’ll never do something that makes it almost certain you’ll end up doing just that in the future.
I’m now the head of Digital Strategy for SAC, and I got the original entry-level job with that self-taught toolkit of web and graphic design I “swore off.” The majority of our employees are female. And although I never became the hacker of my dreams (at least not yet!), I’ve been lucky enough to get to hang with some pretty cool people who did. I never feel more at home than when I’m at hacker cons!
Still though, I’ll admit that I’m a little bitter. I wish like hell that I’d had easy, searchable access to things like Cybrary or Cyberjutsu Girls as a teenager. But I’m so glad that they exist now for the next generation of (female) cybersecurity professionals!
You see, I still run into overwhelming condescension and disregard from men in this industry. And it isn’t just me; I’ve spoken to and read about so many women who share this struggle. Due to our gender, we are quite often negatively targeted, harassed, or simply ignored in the tech field. We’re by far the minority in infosec and IT jobs; if we don’t stick together and attempt to empower young ladies, it will never change.
Luckily for us lady-geeks, it’s easier than ever to support one another. Struggling to find a way into the IT world or know a little one who is interested? Reach out! Try searching for technology-related events or Meetup groups if you live near a city. There are programming and infosecurity organizations that have chapters in cities nationwide that support the development and education of women.
You can also check out the following non-profits, but this is no way an exhaustive list. Type in a quick search and be blown away by all the people who want to help!
* Names have been changed.
Latest posts by Kayley Melton (see all)
- What is Data Classification? Why is it Important? - November 16, 2016
- I’m not a doctor; I don’t need to pay attention to HIPAA. Right? - November 10, 2016
- How Sexism Stalled My Progress in the Tech Field - October 27, 2016