HARTFORD, Conn. -- Dora Schriro, Connecticut's public safety commissioner, knows what it's like to be a woman in the male-dominated world of criminal justice, so she jumped at the chance to work with organizers of a national competition being held this month to find and attract young women to the field of cybersecurity.
The program, "Girls Go Cyberstart," is being run by the SANS Institute, a security education organization. The online problem and puzzle-solving competition is open to high school-age girls in 18 states and American Samoa.
The game, which starts Feb. 20, has participants protecting an imaginary headquarters and moon base by cracking codes, plugging security gaps and creating software tools. It is designed to test aptitude in areas such as cryptography and digital forensics.
Only about 20 percent men or women have brains wired in a way that allows them to be good at this type of work and to enjoy it, said Alan Paller, the director of research at SANS. The game, he said, will help the organization find those people.
Winners get prizes that include a trip to a cybersecurity conference in Chicago, as well as computers and tablets.
But more than that, girls who show aptitude will continue to receive mentorship and opportunities, including scholarships, to continue along a career path, Paller said.
SANS decided to do a girls-only event after holding a similar competition in August. About 3,500 students signed up. Only 7 percent were female, Paller said.
"There are big barriers to women getting into this field, and we want to give them an on-ramp that is their own," he said
Most girls will spend between 10 and 20 hours over several days trying to complete the game, Paller said. Contestants don't need any previous computer knowledge.
Schriro heard about the contest through the National Governor's Association and decided to get involved. Her own decision to enter the field of criminal justice came from a 45-minute presentation in high school, she said.
"Sometimes all it takes," she said, "is a couple minutes."
In addition to promoting the contest from her bully pulpit, Schriro also contacted the Girl Scouts of America and got the organization involved.
The Girl Scouts, which offer a badge in cybersecurity, are forming and sponsoring teams for the contest.
"It's really a way for these girls to get a taste of something, because maybe they don't know they like it," said Mary Barneby, the chief executive officer of the Girl Scouts of Connecticut.
The state will get receive names of the girls who do well in the contest, said Schriro, who plans to make sure those who are interested are given resources and opportunities to continue their education.
"I have been selected by three different governors in three different states to be the first woman to take on a variety of criminal justice or law enforcement responsibilities," said Schriro, who previously ran the New York City jail system and was the first woman to head corrections departments in Arizona and Missouri. "How much more exciting it might be to be the 50th or the 500th to be working in this field when it's normalized and expected?"