‘Elevate security now,’ cybersecurity expert advises leaders in open learning
Athabasca University alum Claudette McGowan identifies growing skills gap during talk at Tenth Pan-Commonwealth Forum on Open Learning
Around the world, 5 billion people have access to the internet. Of those, about 50% have already been compromised to some degree by hackers and bad actors—“And they don’t know it,” explained a leading cybersecurity expert.
Claudette McGowan (Master of Business Administration ’11) has more than 20 years of experience in cybersecurity and is an executive with TD Canada. The Athabasca University (AU) alum was a keynote speaker at the Tenth Pan-Commonwealth Forum on Open Learning. The international conference, held in Calgary from Sept. 14-16, brought together world leaders in open and distance learning.
McGowan spoke about the challenges of educating the next generation of cybersecurity leaders and tackling a skills gap of 3.5 million unfilled jobs in the field. She also shared her perspective as a woman in a male-dominated field—and the need for greater diversity and access to technology.
“I can’t emphasize how important cyber is. Protecting data, protecting privacy—it’s critical to everything we do.”– Claudette McGowan (Master of Business Administration '11)
“Have a playbook” for cybersecurity
McGowan advised the 350 delegates in attendance—some of the world’s leaders in open learning—to have a cybersecurity playbook for their organizations. She said she’s received too many late-night calls from institutions after their organizations had been compromised by cyber attacks. Too often, those organizations’ IT teams are small, overwhelmed and with no plan for what to do in the event of an attack.
“Do you know who to call and do you have a playbook?” she asked.
McGowan said that organizations can protect themselves by ensuring they have a solid plan, which includes ensuring that employees have cybersecurity awareness training. “Professionals don’t hack systems, they hack people,” she explained. Academic institutions in particular, must protect their students, customers, and employees.
“I can’t emphasize how important cyber is. Protecting data, protecting privacy—it’s critical to everything we do.”
Growing need for cybersecurity professionals
To create a safer cyber world, McGowan said there’s an urgent need for skilled professionals with 3.5 million unfilled jobs worldwide. Cybersecurity should be an appealing option for anyone seeking to transfer existing skills in technology or infrastructure. Institutions, she said, should embrace open learning and transform programs so that learners are equipped with skills for the jobs of the future, not the past.
“We have to do a better job socializing what cyber means, what the jobs are.”
Day 1 continues at #PCF10 with the #Canada Country Showcase focusing on transformative technology chaired by @AthabascaU's President @peter_scott featuring keynote speaker Claudette McGowan pic.twitter.com/6sSaCAB6WS
— COL (@COL4D) September 14, 2022
Tackle lack of diversity early
McGowan noted that only 30% of workers in technology fields are women—a statistic that hasn’t changed much in her time in the profession. That’s one of the reasons why she helped found The Firehood, an organization focused on increasing the participation, leadership, and prosperity of women in technology.
“As a woman in technology … it can be lonely. It can be disheartening. But it can also be exciting and fulfilling.”
“As a woman in technology … it can be lonely. It can be disheartening. But it can also be exciting and fulfilling.”– Claudette McGowan
When asked about how to encourage more women to enroll in technology programs, McGowan said it’s important to start early—when girls are in K-12—and not just when they’re 16 or 17 and considering post-secondary programs. Mentorship and sponsorship are also critical for women to thrive, she said, sharing how mentors helped her grow as a professional and leader.
Those relationships also helped her when she decided to return to school for her master’s at AU.
“I was learning, I was growing mentally and physically because open and distance learning made it possible.”
A transformational legacy
In sharing her story, McGowan credited her successes to the sacrifices of her parents, both of whom immigrated to Canada from Jamaica because, as her mother put it, “I wanted more.” When you make changes like that, you’re starting from scratch, she said, but the sacrifice, hard work, and grit have been worth it.
“One generation later, it’s transformational.”