On 17th November a record number of Gloucestershire Year 8 schoolgirls, government cyber specialists and business leaders will gather in what will be the largest ever cybersecurity workshop in the UK.

Now in its third year and hosted by Cheltenham’s non-profit cybersecurity cluster, CyNam, this year’s #EmPowerCyber2023 event will be the biggest yet to inspire females to pursue a career in cyber. A thousand Year 8 schoolgirls from 29 schools from across the South West region will be attending the event at a location near GCHQ, as the government declares a digital skills crisis in the UK.

Described by The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) as a shortage that “should send a shiver down the government’s spine”, the committee revealed earlier this year how government had less than half the tech professionals needed. Furthermore, the number of women in cybersecurity has declined from 22% to 17% for the first time in three years according to this year’s Cyber security skills gap study from the Department for Science, Innovation & Technology (DSIT). A mere 14% of women are in senior cybersecurity roles with only 12% of female graduates at undergraduate level, and 23% at postgraduate level.

Charlotte Smith, Cyber Skills Growth Lead at CyNam, and regional engagement lead for delivering the CyberFirst schools’ programme said: “Attending Empower is a unique opportunity for both the region’s students and teachers to engage with the cyber industry away from the classroom in a truly immersive experience. It leaves a lasting impression that shapes further teaching and enables unique long-lasting relationships to be built, more importantly it also informs our future female talent of all the opportunities that exist within this widening sector. Perception and representation of females within the industry still requires drastic improvement and this massive event engaging with 1000 local year 8 girls is forming a legacy that is now being templated in other regions of the UK.”

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Since 2019 #EmPowerCyber has delivered cybersecurity workshops to 2150 girls across the north and south of the UK with some schools seeing a 600% increase in girls choosing GCSE Computer Science course after attending the workshop. This year the event has the biggest backing yet with support from brands such as BT, the NHS and Renishaw and involving over 30 local businesses in the South West.

A hands-on event, the Year 8 girls will be shown how to code, crack passwords, experience a real live cyber-attack, and take part in activities such as; learning how to hack VAR, defending critical national infrastructure, solving a cryptography murder mystery, harnessing artificial intelligence and how to create a crypto wallet, amongst other things.

Sanjeeva Karunaratne, Computer Science Teacher at Cirencester Kingshill secondary school, which attended EmPowerCyber last year added: “Going to EmPower is a starting point for many students in understanding the importance and relevancy that cyber and other related subjects such as computer science have in the world and career opportunities. One event alone may not mean they will go on to do a computing subject, but it does inspire students into the subject and starts them on their journey.”

Gloucester Academy, Dean Academy in the Forest of Dean, and Pittville School in Cheltenham are amongst the 29 schools involved and taking part in the workshops, as well as The Crypt School, Denmark Road High School, and Ribston Hall High School. A number of the schools attending are part of the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC)’s CyberFirst programme, which provides courses and competitions to help ‘introduce the younger generation to the world of cyber security’.

A CyberFirst representative at the NCSC added: “It is really encouraging to see so many girls get stuck in with cyber. Initiatives like EmPowerCyber and the CyberFirst Girls Competition are designed with the hope of sparking curiosity and empowering young girls to explore the opportunities cyber has to offer – opportunities they may never have considered otherwise. With registration for the 2023 Girls Competition on the horizon, we’re looking forward to catching the next generation of cyber-savvy girls in action!”

Jacqui Lees, the Net Zero and Social Value Director at AtkinsRéalis’, one of the companies taking part in the event, said: “Events such as EmPowerCyber are an important way to drive career interest in cyber security among young people, helping to fill the UK’s critical cyber skills gap and grow female representation in this vital industry. AtkinsRéalis’ cyber security consultants will be there to engage the students with immersive activities to give them a good understanding of the many aspects of cyber security and stimulate discussion with those working in the sector.

“As CyNam’s Strategic Partner for 2023, we are continuing to support the thriving cyber community in Cheltenham, alongside our involvement in several other STEM programmes for all ages.

Gloucestershire is home to the largest concentration of cyber tech businesses outside of London and the largest cyber tech cluster in the UK. A £1 billion Golden Valley Development in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire is currently underway which will position Cheltenham at the heart of the UK cyber ecosystem and make it a key player in establishing the UK as a science and tech superpower, focusing on emerging technology sectors. Members of the Golden Valley Development team will attend EmPowerCyber, with students being given an opportunity to feedback on what they think of the development.

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