Cyber Hollywood: Onscreen vs. reality

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Television and movies have an impact on how we see the world, from shaping how we should find love to the kind of parents we should be. Sometimes there is character development, and other times, there is no dimension at all. One character that is often misrepresented in movies is “the hacker.”  People working in cyber are almost always portrayed by a cisgender white male. Nowhere on the big or small screen is there a trope more clearly defined. 

We must first ask ourselves, why are there so few women or Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) in hacker roles in media? Unfortunately, this might be due to the lack of diversity within the cybersecurity industry. Women only account for 24% of the cybersecurity workforce while 9% self-identify as Black. The field remains astonishingly homogenous. Historically, it is challenging to encourage women and BIPOC into cyber careers. This then results in a Catch-22 situation — where the lack of women and BIPOC on the big and small screen reflects the lack in the field.

A step in the right direction 

However, if you look hard enough — and as far back as the 90s — you’ll find a few incredibly smart, incredibly witty BIPOC or female hackers on the ready-to-play among the shadows of the internet. There are fictional characters on TV such as Alec Hardison of Leverage, Penelope Garcia of Criminal Minds, Chloe O’Brien of 24, and Elliot Alderson of Mr. Robot. In the movies, Angelina Jolie portrays Kate Libby in the cult-classic Hackers. More recently, Furious 7 featured Ramsey, the cyber genius who creates the software at the center of the movie, and the long-awaited Ocean’s Eight cast Rihanna as talented hacker Nine Ball. These characters create spaces for underrepresented communities to identify with on and off the screen, encouraging women and BIPOC to explore the field of cybersecurity — and reprograming the way hackers are portrayed.

While composite characters like hackers are a great way to deliver a simplified message and story to viewers, the downside is that they only represent a small portion of the entire cybersecurity workforce. There are far more cybersecurity roles than what is commonly depicted on the big screen, including areas of engineering and computer science across nearly every industry imaginable: healthcare, automotive, industrial, aerospace and so much more. 

Mentorship and cyber education can help 

Though it is crucial to recruit a diverse cast of stars for television shows and movies, it is equally important to offer a set of diverse, positive role models in the workforce. However, cultivating a diverse cybersecurity workforce requires the intention, commitment and leadership from organizations themselves.

The first step organizations can take to foster the next generation of cyber talent is to introduce mentorship programs and support systems. These can come from non-profit organizations, scholarships, or even Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programs initiated from within the company itself. An effective program connects students with the resources they need to fast-track career pathways and build up the fundamental skills to successfully enter the constantly evolving cyber workforce. 

Having these support systems and mentors also helps create a cybersecurity career pathway for individuals already working in or pursuing a career in technology. Supporting these types of connections and pairings ultimately shape conversations around what new and emerging fields “look” like and helps redefine what it means to be a cybersecurity professional — improving retention and relieving the workforce strain. 

Diversity and inclusion can solve the acute talent shortage in the cyber industry. We must create role models in cyber that the younger generation can see and aspire to be. The future of cyber is looking bright with the help of Hollywood, STEM and grade school cyber programs, support from institutions in higher education and large shifts in company culture. Combined, these efforts will create a domino effect on growth and diversity within cyber.

Lodrina Cherne is a certified instructor at SANS Institute and principal security advocate at Cybereason.


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