Inspiring women leading the way in cybersecurity

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A woman’s bespectacled eyes and nose, bathed in blue light from a computer screen.

Of the nearly four million people working in cybersecurity around the world, 75% are men. There are some quite obvious reasons for such an enormous gender imbalance, but the World Economic Forum identified low awareness of the industry, a lack of role models and mentors and imposter syndrome as three key issues in attracting new female and non-binary hires.

Zoë Rose, Information Security Team Lead, and Sakina Asadova, an Offensive Security Expert both work across Canon EMEA from the Netherlands. They are highly experienced and respected cybersecurity professionals, and both received nominations at the ‘Most Inspiring Women in Cyber Awards 2022’. The pair speak to VIEW about how they came to be part of the industry they love, some of the challenges they faced and words of advice for those following in their footsteps.

How did you find yourselves in cybersecurity careers?

Zoë: I was always a curious person and always the one who asked “why?”, but I was very insecure and never thought I was good enough for technology. However, during an extremely difficult time in my life, I used technology to get myself out of it. So, it was a mix of being a shy child – wanting a career where I didn't have to be around people – as well as learning the skills I needed to protect myself, with the goal of being the person I needed to be. When I started my own business in Canada, I was a ‘Managed Service Provider’ because where I grew up, cybersecurity wasn't a distinct thing, it was generalised under IT. The main reason I started my business in Canada, was because I found it difficult to get a job in technology as a woman back then.

When I moved to the UK. I officially became a security person, although I still count the work I did in Canada as security, even though they were very different use cases ­– I was looking at networking and environment infrastructure. When I moved, I still had to secure the network. I still had to secure the environment. I still had to provide awareness and why security was important. But I also was dealing with ultra-high net worth individuals, people with high profiles and celebrities. It wasn’t just building them a secure environment but figuring out what worked for their lifestyles, and investigating when things didn’t go as expected. So, I got to do really cool and interesting investigations, situations that an everyday person may not be in.

Sakina: I studied computer science after school, and then I realised that I have the ability to see what’s wrong – especially in software. So, for example, I was developing mobile applications for my bachelor’s, and I realised that I was automatically looking for what can go wrong. At that point I thought, “okay, it seems like I can do this, so why am I not looking into it?” At that time, cyber was not a big hit, yet and I didn't even know if there were study options available. But I was already interested in hacking, and as you can imagine that’s quite a man's world. Girls weren’t expected to be interested in hacking or engage in activities that involved breaking into computer systems, spending days or nights in front of a computer, trying to find some kind of backdoors.

I found a university scholarship for cyber, and I applied. I won the scholarship and was admitted to the school. And that's where my journey began – it was like a new beginning. You can of course, go for defence or offensive, it's up to you, but when I started, I didn't know what I wanted to do. In my class there were around 20 students, and I was the only girl. I knew it would be hard, but I wanted to go for it. I was motivated by all these smart brains, and I wanted to be one of them – not just because I’m a woman, but because I was studying alongside people who had been doing this since they were eleven or twelve and it inspired me to work even harder, because I wanted to be at least as good as them – or better.

A woman sits at a table, looking at her laptop. She wears a mustard-coloured polo neck, black biker jacket and black-rimmed spectacles.

World Economic Forum identified low awareness of the industry, a lack of role models and mentors and imposter syndrome as three key issues in attracting new female and non-binary hires.

It’s interesting that you both discovered your aptitude by yourselves without any guidance or role models. Did this make your career path more challenging?

Zoë: You have to work harder. In the beginning of my career, if I didn't know the answer to something, I couldn’t admit it as then I would be judged, I had to study a lot. Whereas now have more than ten years of industry background and I can confidently say, “that's not my area of expertise” or “let me investigate and get back to you.” Because in the past I’ve seen my male colleagues taken at their word and my knowledge questioned. I had to prove my existence, essentially. I actually just started a podcast with a friend called The Imposter Syndrome Network. We talk about people's careers and the challenges they’ve faced and how they've come through them. And I think that's kind of how I deal with who I am. I am actually a very shy person, which nobody believes because I'm outspoken in the industry, and I'm outgoing at conferences.

How did you cope with having to work harder than your colleagues?

Sakina: In our current working environment, we don't have to constantly prove ourselves, but what can make you really burned out is when you don't have the same opportunities as your male colleagues to make a mistake. Because God forbid if I make a mistake, then I'm representing all women in the industry! Unless you are perfect, your knowledge can be questioned and that can kind of lead to burnout. But how to avoid it? You just have to accept and learn that it’s also okay for you to make mistakes and if you're confident, you can always add a disclaimer – “my opinion is my subjective opinion. It might not be the perfect answer, but it’s what I have right now.”

Zoë: That's a really good point. Something I had to learn was ‘progress, not perfection’. And so, I did the same thing. I was so worried about making a mistake that I did tonnes of research in the background. Whereas in our team right now, I if I am asked a question and simply don’t have the capacity to give an immediate explanation, I know I can ask a colleague to step in. And they’ll be brilliant, knowing that I need help in that moment and, you know, that's such a different experience than I've ever had in my career. It’s like, “wait, you're happy to just answer for me? Really? Without questioning me?” It's such an amazing experience.

In the past I’ve seen my male colleagues taken at their word and my knowledge questioned. I had to prove my existence, essentially."

Is it fair to say that you both absolutely love a challenge?

Sakina: Why else would you torture yourself every day like this? [laughs] I mean, you have to really love it. Because, at least for me, this kind of job can be uncomfortable every day. You have to be creative; you have to find something that someone else couldn't find, right? So, you always have to be ahead. Seeing from different perspectives. At times, I may need to take a break, solve a different problem, or attend to my emails before returning to the task with a fresh perspective and potentially new ideas to try. When I can think differently, it motivates me even more. At the end of the day, I like to use my brain to solve new problems and I definitely enjoy challenges along the way. It’s like stretching my brain. Not learning anything new in a day? That would give me burnout.

Zoë: I like being the least skilled person in the room. Because if you're the smartest person in the room, they always say it means that you're in the wrong room. But what does that actually mean? It means you're not growing; you're not seeing the other insights. If you're the smartest person in the room, you're capping your knowledge. And that, to me, is horrible. I don't want to know everything. I want to feel like I need to learn more, and I want to grow. Being around really intelligent people, makes me happy.

Are you seeing more women in the industry today?

Zoë: Definitely compared to starting. Right now, I am in a privileged position, as I'm a little bit more senior in my role and known in the industry. But I always try to work to be the person I needed to be, essentially. I try to be a safe person to ask questions, and provide advice, and looking at the industry now I see that more and more. In fact, that Inspiring Women in Cybersecurity award, what I liked about it most was how many women I could nominate. It used to be that I would sit down and nominate one other woman just because I knew she existed. Whereas now it took me three days to nominate all the women I wanted!

Girls weren’t expected to be interested in hacking or engage in activities that involved breaking into computer systems, spending days or nights in front of a computer, trying to find some kind of backdoors."

What would you say to women and non-binary people who might be considering a career in cybersecurity? What advice would you give them?

Zoë: If I was trying to convince people that this is a really good career, I’d ask if they like to investigate the why. Why is something happening? Or why is something not working? Rephrasing things in this way made a huge difference to me. I wasn’t asking “how can I solve everything?” but “how can I improve it?” Not “how do I make it perfect?” Because that's not possible. And it could be anything from making the technology backend better, improving the configuration to be more efficient, or more secure. It’s thinking what is this thing, and what am I designing it for/protecting against?

Also, remember that you have a strong community to back you, and their support to protect you if something does fail, because things do fail. I mean, I’ve made huge mistakes in my career, but that's where I learnt the most. So, building a good in-person community is a huge part of my career because social media does a great job of creating this skewed view, showing only success and perfection almost. which I think enhances impostor syndrome. Your community makes it easier to understand and put things into context. And, as humans, we like to celebrate together and be collaborative.

And I think another piece of advice I’d give it is to value your diversity, because I think diversity is a major part of successful security, but it isn't well understood. It also includes skills, perspectives, economic backgrounds, different career paths. Somebody coming from a law background and an ethical hacker would both have great skills, but also varied perspectives, and could balance each other.

Sakina: When I was getting started, I was scared. I was so scared that I would not be good enough, so I tried too hard on the way. What I would say is that it’s okay to be scared. You don't have to know all the answers when you start. I’ve seen people, especially women, who say, “I'm never going to be good enough”. There will always be someone who started earlier than you, knows way more than you. That’s okay – it’s not a competition. You can learn from these people. I mean, why not take the opportunity? Maybe just talking about your difficulties or insecurities already would help. You don't have to be perfect. You just have to feel a little confident about what are you doing. And every day you will learn something. It doesn't have to scare you. Once you finish the day, with fully ‘stretched’ brain, now, that’s a joy!

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