Friday, 14th June 2024

Friday, 14th June 2024

Securing more women for the cyber force

31 Aug 2023

The dearth of professionals in the cybersecurity arena has Ms Mapel Yap Wei Ling reaching out to female students to plug the gap. Her initiatives are forward-looking, as are her Cyber Security students. Ms Yap is an Assistant Programme Chair at Republic Polytechnic, and a finalist for the President’s Award for Teachers 2023.

The girl is seated furtively at the computer and taps furiously away at the keyboard; seconds later, she hacks into the system. So cool, thinks the teenager watching the scene in the darkness of the movie theatre. There and then, student Claudia Chee decides she wants to be a cyber sleuth.

But after Claudia enrols at Republic Polytechnic’s (RP) School of Infocomm, she hits several roadblocks and the dream fades. In walks Ms Mapel Yap.

A less inviting domain for women

Ms Yap is the Assistant Programme Chair for RP’s Diploma in Infocomm Security Management programme, and teaches cybersecurity and IT networking.

When she first joined RP in 2013, she was tasked with developing the new IT diploma programme. The first thing she told her team was that more female students should join the course.

With the fourth industrial revolution under way and Singapore’s push to be a “Smart Nation”, the demand for qualified cybersecurity professionals exploded.

So why were women holding back from accessing the available opportunities, and why did the IT sector seem less than inviting? Perhaps they need a larger women representation in this sector?

Role-modelling on several fronts

The gender bias in IT is no myth, says Ms Yap. She stood out when she was working as a network and systems administrator in a government agency.

As a minority in more ways than one – she was the first polytechnic graduate to be hired at her office and the youngest on the team too – she had to work extra hard to get help from her fellow colleagues.

Her female boss made a huge difference – she told Ms Yap to “be more thick-skinned” and ignore the negativity. Ms Yap soon proved her worth in the area of intrusion detection and incident response. “She was my role model,” Ms Yap declares.

The lecturer hopes to be that same voice of inspiration to her female students, to not feel defeated if things don’t immediately click at lectures. “I want to be that role model to them and remind them that hey, when I started working, it was all guys. I could do it, so can you!”

“Nothing comes easy but once they pick up the base skills, they’re able to do well. Most importantly, they discover for themselves that they can do it.”

To her student Claudia, the aspiring cyber sleuth, Ms Yap comes close to being her real-life hero. At RP, Claudia was struggling with her modules until Ms Yap took notice. When she learned that Claudia was inspired by what she had seen in the movie, she demonstrated for her  similar IT skillsets that could be picked up from the course.

Claudia was inspired just watching her lecturer crack passwords and communicate in codes. A mindset change later, she hit the keyboards, graduated, and is now working as a cybersecurity analyst.

“The first step is to encourage them to try,” Ms Yap imparts. “Nothing comes easy but once they pick up the base skills, they’re able to do well. Most importantly, they discover for themselves that they can do it.”

The mother of two is an approachable figure and popular mentor to all students. She often talks about how bright their future could be as cybersecurity skills are in demand not just in Singapore but globally.

Ms Mapel Yap_3

Networking about networking

A year after establishing the diploma programme, Ms Yap set up the Girls in Cyber interest group to introduce students to more female role models in the IT sector. She arranges talks by women professionals from the industry and brings the girls on learning journeys. Often, they are surprised and encouraged to see many women working in security operations centres. Always, they are inspired.

When the five polytechnics came together to set up the inter-poly Girls in Tech group, Ms Yap was naturally part of the working committee. The group is run by female students from across the institutions, and different IT sub-sectors. In doing so, they build not just technical skills, but also project management and communication skills, while working with peers and businesses. Their pride is palpable after every successful event, Ms Yap shares.

Back in RP, Ms Yap also advanced Joint Lab Agreements with industry partners. Their input validates the curriculum as being current, relevant, and useful.

She has also helped to develop Memoranda of Understanding with industry partners, which are crucial for staff development. By working closely with the industry, Ms Yap and her colleagues stay up-to-date with the latest trends and incorporate them into their teaching. She set up five partnerships at the start; there are now about 32 for the entire School of Infocomm.

Partnerships and industry tie-ups lead to internships

Industry partners also provide students with what Ms Yap calls “fruitful internships”. For these internships, she insists on forward-looking projects with no known solution. At the 2022 GovWare conference, one such project elicited much interest, as it was the first to feature polytechnic students delving into operational technology cybersecurity.

Ms Yap knows she has been successful in developing her students’ abilities, when they share with her how much they had learned. Many of her female students even help with her outreach efforts to secondary schools, serving as ambassadors to attract more to join the IT sector. 

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