The growing need for more women cybersleuths

Only one-fifth of US computer science and engineering degrees are earned by women

Cybersecurity's gender gap
Cybersecurity's gender gap   

Amid high-profile breaches on websites such as Ashley Madison and the IRS, experts say the need for cybersecurity professionals—including women—is only growing.

Nearly 2 million global cybersecurity professionals will be needed by 2017, according to the National Cybersecurity Institute at Excelsior College. At the same time, the cybersecurity industry is facing a gender gap.

"One of the interesting things that we see is that 50 percent or more of those graduating from college are women, and 11 percent only are in the cybersecurity field," said Shelley Westman, vice president at IBM Security. "So what we see is as an industry, we're leaving a lot of talent on the table," she said.

Westman was among several keynote speakers at a New York City conference last month on recruiting more women to cybersecurity.

Professor Nasir Memon of New York University said the conference was designed to reach high school and college students as well as women looking to change careers. "We do that by getting leading women from industry and getting them to talk about what it is to be doing cybersecurity," said Memon, who heads NYU's computer science and engineering department.

Read MoreCriminals staging DDoS attacks available by hour anonymously

US women made up 26 percent of computing professionals in 2013—the same level as in the 1960s

Attendees at the NYU-Polytechnic School of Engineering Career Discovery in Cybersecurity listen as Shelley Westman from IBM speaks.
Source: CNBC
Attendees at the NYU-Polytechnic School of Engineering Career Discovery in Cybersecurity listen as Shelley Westman from IBM speaks.

Overall, the ranks of women in computing fields remain low. Women made up just 26 percent of computing professionals in 2013—the same level as in the 1960s, according to the American Association of University Women (AAUW).

"If you want to create a workforce ... you want to create a talent pipeline, you cannot simply ignore half the population," said Memon.

Beyond the U.S., other countries are leaving fewer women behind when it comes to computer science and engineering. In both Malaysia and Indonesia, women earn roughly half of the computer science and engineering degrees, while only one-fifth of those same degrees are earned by women in the U.S.

Not only can women fill the estimated nearly 210,000 vacant cybersecurity positions in the United States, they can also bring new perspectives.

"When you have a balanced team of both men and women, the teams are able to look at things a little bit differently and make sure that you're really looking at all causes, all effects and really get to the heart of the problem," said IBM Security's Westman.

And cybersecurity careers pay well.

The average industry salary is around $116,000 according to a survey by Semper Secure, an organization looking to draw more talent specifically to Virginia.

Read MoreIBM fights cybercrime with its own social media platform

Girls who like to code

"I want to be able to break those stereotypes that people have." -Chandrika Khanduri, NYU student

Ghada Almashaqbeh, a graduate student at Columbia University, said the conference at NYU's Polytechnic School of Engineering has prompted her to map out her cyber career path.

"When you see ... these successful women, you feel very proud that they can prove themselves," she said.

However, Almashaqbeh believe sometimes women face an uphill battle proving themselves in the cybersecurity field. "When you are looking at a woman in cybersecurity, I feel that the main challenge is just to convince the others that we are smart, we can think about these somehow difficult issues and challenges at the same level as ... the guy is doing."

It's a battle Chandrika Khanduri, a student at NYU, understands. She said observers have commented they're surprised she's a woman who likes to dress up—and likes to code.

"I want to be able to break those stereotypes that people have. [Such as that a] girl can't look pretty and a girl can't be smart at the same time," said Khanduri, who also is pursuing a cybersecurity career.

Read MoreAshley Madison offers $378K reward to find hacker

Upending hacking stereotypes

NYU-Polytechnic School of Engineering hosted a conference to get more women interested in cybersecurity as a career.
Source: CNBC
NYU-Polytechnic School of Engineering hosted a conference to get more women interested in cybersecurity as a career.

NYU's Memon believes women may not be drawn to cybersecurity because of hacker stereotypes.

"Cybersecurity is often viewed as a hacking discipline, right? You're sitting on a computer all by yourself in the middle of the night and breaking into something. Women don't like that," he said.

One of the NYU conference goals was to dispel those stereotypes.

"When they [women] get to know what the work environment is like, and it's not that stereotyped, typical hacker sort of environment that they had in mind, hopefully they will say, 'Yeah, this is for me as well,'" Memon said.

Corporate America is also trying to reach out to women. IBM has partnered with 300 universities to share software and expertise to train people going into cybersecurity.

To help women at tech company who may be interested in changing careers to work in cybersecurity, Westman of IBM Security launched a group, Women in Security Excelling, or WISE, to keep women informed on industry opportunities.

"It's up to us," Westman said. "Those of us in the field now, to train the next generation of skills."

Read MoreWarning: Downloading that mobile app could cost you