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Careers & People

5/20/2016
12:00 PM
Haiyan Song
Haiyan Song
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Closing the Gender Gap in Cybersecurity: 3 Critical Steps

Women in security need to step up as industry role models and set the example for future generations. Here's how.

The gender gap in Silicon Valley gets a lot of attention but this is not just a Silicon Valley problem. As a woman in the male-dominated technology industry, I first experienced the gender gap when I was in college at Tsinghua University (the top engineering school in China), where less than 3 percent of my class was women. I’ve seen the issue throughout my career and have managed to overcome my fair share of adversity.

Here is my advice to women looking to enter and excel in cybersecurity:

Be Yourself

The best way to break stereotypes in tech is to be comfortable in your own skin. The confidence you carry allows people to focus on the merits of your opinions and contributions. To help women break into the security industry, we need more female role models to step up and show that there are no gender-specific qualities that make a cybersecurity professional great at their job. Female cybersecurity professionals who are looking to help close the gap should offer their wealth of experience to others and mentor them through the challenges of breaking into a male-dominated industry.

I learned early on to take what feels like a disadvantage in a situation and use it to your advantage. In my early 30s, I was the only woman at the table during a business meeting in Japan and felt like I was being underestimated. Rather than feeling intimidated or discouraged, I took the opportunity to challenge the stereotype my audience placed upon me and showcase my understanding of the business partnership from both perspectives. This was a memorable experience for me, as I learned that being underestimated can sometimes be your biggest strength when negotiating.  

It’s also important to realize that you don’t need to have a highly technical background in order to have a role in the cybersecurity industry. If you don’t have a degree in computer science, work hard to learn and develop your skills. Then, when an opportunity presents itself, take it. Backgrounds in non-technical industries, like music, for example, can be a great indicator for success in analytical jobs, such as a security analyst.

Push the Boundaries

Many women are overly cautious and want to be 110 percent ready before venturing into something new. However, there is always a reward for taking risks and challenging yourself. Even if the outcome isn’t what you expected, the experience of pushing the limits is incredibly valuable -- and often bridges to new opportunities.

Early in my career, I was managing the security program at Informix, where I was succeeding and generally comfortable in my role. As part of the company’s talent development program, I was asked to switch teams and manage a new program. At the time, this seemed like unknown, daunting territory as I had very little knowledge of this new field. Despite the obstacles in this transition, I successfully took on this new challenge, relying on my technical skills and leadership experience paired with support from senior management.

I consider this experience a pivotal moment in the evolution in my thinking about leadership and management. It gave me the confidence to step into new and different roles, which has allowed me to build a diverse background. In today’s evolving security landscape, there are always new variables to consider. We have to be prepared for the unexpected. Without eclectic talent, we lack the diverse thinking necessary to overcome those unexpected challenges. Security needs the best of human intelligence to combat growing cyber threats, making it essential for those in the field to be lifelong students of the trade.   

Be a Role Model

A broad stereotype exists about who a security professional is, how they act, and even what they look like. The media depicts cybersecurity experts as lone, nerdy men, which makes it difficult to entice women at a young age to be interested in the industry, let alone math and science programs.

To combat this negative stereotype, women in security need to step up as industry role models and set the example for future generations. Industry professionals, both men and women, should offer their guidance and leadership to those looking to enter the field. We’re finally starting to see the media combat the gender gap, by casting women as lead roles in STEM-related shows. One of my personal favorites is Quantico, whose lead (Alex Parrish, played by Priyanka Chopra) is a young, female FBI recruit. It’s great to see Hollywood using its influence as a platform to encourage more women to pursue careers in STEM. I’m hopeful that more movies and TV series will follow suit.

To further these efforts, we need to prime our education system to incorporate forensics and intelligence courses into students’ curricula. The more we can interest girls in STEM programs at a young age, the more confident they will be as women entering and succeeding in the tech industry.   

The gender gap in security is a product of stereotypes about woman, STEM programs and the security industry as a whole. Constantly trying to fulfill the stereotype of a cybersecurity professional is holding the industry back. Worse, it hinders our ability to grow, strengthen our defense against, and respond to complex attacks. The cybersecurity industry needs smart people who are willing to think creatively and work hard. Gender should never be a factor.

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Haiyan leads the security business at Splunk and is responsible for driving Splunk's strategy and execution in the fast-growing security market. Splunk Inc. provides the leading software platform for real-time operational and security intelligence. Previously, Haiyan spent ... View Full Bio
 

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josephrovira
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josephrovira,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/23/2016 | 5:06:16 PM
Re: Women in Cybersecurit
I have been in this field for 34 years now and I can't think of anything that was really exciting. I can find many times that I have felt sheer panic and a sense of dread, nothing exciting in a good way. However, I am glad you can perhaps share some of your moments of excitement that would hopefully sway a promising student to go into our field.

Honestly, the main reason that I am in this field is that I am very good at it. Though it may be that I have just become jaded with it since I have never found it very challenging.
Dr.T
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Dr.T,
User Rank: Ninja
5/23/2016 | 1:53:08 PM
Re: Gender Gap
The way I want to take this is that gender gap is just one of the parameters, skills and abilities that women bring into IT sector is valuable. That is why more women in IT better outcome for IT departments.
Dr.T
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Dr.T,
User Rank: Ninja
5/23/2016 | 1:49:42 PM
Re: Gender Gap
"... Would I like to see more women in the IT Security realm?  Of course. ..."

I agree. I see it as balance between different perspectives. Women could bring better insight and organized approach to IT departments
Dr.T
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Dr.T,
User Rank: Ninja
5/23/2016 | 1:46:06 PM
Re: Women in Cybersecurit
".. I know this job sucks when it comes to talking about what you do to anyone that is not a part of it ..."

I actually consider IT exciting. Especially last 20 years has been great and the progress that has been made in IT way overpassed all other major areas and it is exciting to be in IT.
Dr.T
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Dr.T,
User Rank: Ninja
5/23/2016 | 1:42:43 PM
Re: Women in Cybersecurit
"It would be awesome to have more women in cybersecurity ..."

I would agree with this. Women being detail oriented and organized they would be quite successful in cybersecurity.
Dr.T
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Dr.T,
User Rank: Ninja
5/23/2016 | 1:40:45 PM
Lack of Women in IT
For me, this starts from the early education and then the collage. There are not enough females in IT classes, so we do not expect there will be women in IT departments.
RyanSepe
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RyanSepe,
User Rank: Ninja
5/23/2016 | 10:22:01 AM
Re: Gender Gap
You hit all the major points of what I have been saying for a long time. Aside from the fact that there are disparities in different industry sectors with all physical architypes, a crusade to close gaps for the wrong reasons could be detrimental to women who actually want to get into the cybersecurity field.
rstoney
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rstoney,
User Rank: Strategist
5/23/2016 | 9:46:15 AM
Gender Gap
Perhaps I will be accused of being a luddite here, or not seeing "The Big Picture" -- but I really do not care about the gender gap.  

When I engage in my profession, either in person or online, during work hours or what I do on my own I really do not care about your chromosome composition.  What I care about is that you are highly proficent and willing to teach, proficient and willing to teach, or even just starting out and wanting to learn.  Or any place on the sliding scale.  Nodding towards current events - which bathroom you decide to use is inane useless details to me.

Would I like to see more women in the IT Security realm?  Of course.  Because that means we have a greater pool of what could be proficient people in an important field of work.  And that is the only point I care about.  

 
josephrovira
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josephrovira,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/20/2016 | 3:29:56 PM
Women in Cybersecurit
It would be awesome to have more women in cybersecurity or in the information systems field in general. However, unlike what I am hearing about statistics and unbalanced gender representation, the real reason is that women are valuable in this field just by their ability to offer a rare but essential perspective that is often overlooked by any gender dominated field. I am well aware that cybersecurity and the IT profsession is not really "glamourous" or an exiciting field to be in and thus not appealing to many. Diversity in the cybersecurity field is key to an effective method to combat the constant asymmetrical threats that we face. We must be able to have the different persective that are offered by both genders and cultures in order to do the jobs we are genourously paid for. I know this job sucks when it comes to talking about what you do to anyone that is not a part of it, but that is the nature of our profession. You can always get involved in a decent hobby that you can talk to your friends about.
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