How to Increase the Presence – and Impact – of Women in Cybersecurity
This blog is the first in a series of posts featuring perspectives from Cisco women in security. Next month’s blog will feature Chief Privacy Officer, Michelle Dennedy.
When I started my information security career at NASA’s Ames Research Center in 1988, there were very few women in the field. In fact, I’d attend conferences in which I was literally the only female participant.
Back then, I launched and managed the information security program for the Numerical Aerodynamic Simulation (NAS) Facility at Ames. I was greatly encouraged by the support I received at NASA Ames. Still, the lack of gender diversity within my chosen field was a double-edged sword. There would be days when I was motivated to get other women involved and then there were days when I was troubled by the lack of females interested.
Then it happened. In 2011, I was chairing a security architecture summit for the SANS Institute. During a break, I headed to the ladies room and – to my surprise and delight – a line of women attendees was there! This was a first – we acknowledged each other, and celebrated the moment with a “We’ve arrived!” sense of accomplishment. To this day, when I attend any technical event I look around the room and count the number of women – we are growing, but not fast enough.
While females hold one-half of professional occupations in the U.S. and one-quarter of computing-related jobs, they account for just 11 percent of the information security workforce, according to the Women’s Society of Cyberjutsu (WSC), a non-profit that helps and empowers women in cybersecurity. With more than 1 million global cybersecurity jobs unfilled, we can’t afford to let this opportunity slip away. We must do what it takes to make sure that women are well-represented as organizations fill these vacancies. Here’s how this can happen:
Reaching out. When I started my career, women in this field generally didn’t help each other. There was a competitive element in play, and it kept us from combining our knowledge and strengths to advance as professionals. But this mindset is changing. Recently, for example, I co-founded the Cisco Women in Cybersecurity Community, to ignite a passion for women who are new to the vocation. In our first year, we grew the community to more than 200 members. We need to keep up with efforts like these – especially in convincing millennial women to follow our path. We have to reach these women at a younger age, when they are in middle and high school to let them know what great opportunities exist in the field.
Building mentorship/sponsorship programs. At Cisco, our mentorship programs “fan the flames” by encouraging and guiding women. The impact of a positive mentorship experience can last for decades: In 1991, I began a mentoring relationship with Alan Paller, president and founder of SANS. He helped me grow and learn, and even allowed me to offer directional input for SANS in the early years.
Cisco’s sponsorship programs take the mentoring concept to a higher level by designating an executive to map out a professional development/advancement path for a future leader – and then help her make it happen. Organizations need to fully dedicate their efforts to mentorships and sponsorships, particularly those focused upon women in cybersecurity.
Networking and taking advantage of existing resources. If you work remotely or in an area in which your colleagues are all male, you may feel a bit isolated. But this doesn’t have to be the case. Resources exist outside of WSC, including:
- Anita Borg Institute – a social enterprise organization devoted to supporting women in technology careers
- SANS’ CyberTalent Immersion Academy for Women – an accelerated training and certificate program which offers women a fast track to top jobs in cybersecurity
- New America’s Women in Cybersecurity Project – an initiative launched to establish partnerships with industry leaders to increase the representation of women in the cybersecurity industry
- Women in Cybersecurity from Tennessee Tech – WiCyS has become a continuing effort to recruit, retain and advance women in cybersecurity.
When I talk to female cybersecurity professionals at industry conferences and gatherings, I often tell them to “Be bold!” Don’t be afraid to send that initial email to a company leader, go to a networking event or volunteer to be a speaker at a local school or college. The process of achieving the mission at hand – tackling the gender imbalance while elevating our leadership roles in cybersecurity – begins with us.
The most important advice I can offer women in the cybersecurity industry is, “Don’t give up!”
Michele Guel will be joined by fellow Cisco employees at the Women in Cybersecurity Conference (WiCys) taking place in Tucson, AZ, March 31-April 1. She is hosting a workshop titled, “Are your favorite mobile apps leaking your personal data?” The workshop will explore how common, widely used mobile apps collect and retain personally identifiable information and what can be done to uphold data privacy.
Additionally, Michelle Dennedy, Cisco’s V.P. & Chief Privacy Officer is keynoting WiCyS, sharing her personal career journey and the unique opportunities that exist for women in the cybersecurity industry.
Michele D. Guel is a Distinguished Engineer and Chief Security Architect with Cisco’s Security & Trust Organization. She is the recent winner of a 2016 Women of Vision ABIE Award from the Anita Borg Institute.