Welcoming more women into cybersecurity: the power of mentorships

From the way our industry tackles cyber threats, to the language we have developed to describe these attacks, I’ve long been a proponent to challenging traditional schools of thought—traditional cyber-norms—and encouraging our industry to get outside its comfort zones. It’s important to expand our thinking in how we address the evolving threat landscape. That’s why I’m not a big fan of stereotypes; looking at someone and saying they “fit the mold.” Looking at my CV, one would think I wanted to study law, or politics, not become a cybersecurity professional. These biases and unconscious biases shackle our progression. The scale of our industry challenges is too great, and if we don’t push boundaries, we miss out on the insights that differences in race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, neurology, ability, and degrees can bring.

As we seek to diversify the talent pool, a key focus needs to be on nurturing female talent. Microsoft has hired many women in security, and we will always focus on keeping a diverse workforce. That’s why as we celebrate Women in Cybersecurity Month and International Women’s Day, the security blog will feature a few women cybersecurity leaders who have been implementing some of their great ideas for how to increase the number of women in this critical field. I’ll kick off the series with some thoughts on how we can build strong mentoring relationships and networks that encourage women to pursue careers in cybersecurity.

There are many women at Microsoft who lead our security efforts. I’m incredibly proud to be among these women, like Joy Chik, Corporate Vice President of Identity, who is pushing the boundaries on how the tech industry is thinking about going passwordless, and Valecia Maclin, General Manager of Security Engineering, who is challenging us to think outside the box when it comes to our security solutions. On my own team, I think of the many accomplishments of  Ping Look, who co-founded Black Hat and now leads our Detection and Response Team (DART), Sian John, MBE, who was recently recognized as one of the top 50 influencers in cybersecurity in the U.K., and Diana Kelley, Microsoft CTO, who tirelessly travels to the globe to share how we are empowering our customers through cybersecurity—just to name a few. It’s important we continue to highlight women like these, including our female cybersecurity professionals at Microsoft who made the Top 100 Cybersecurity list in 2019. The inspiration from their accomplishments goes far beyond our Microsoft campus. These women represent the many Microsoft women in our talented security team. This month, you’ll also hear from some of them in subsequent blog posts on how to keep the diverse talent you already have employed. And to conclude the month, Theresa Payton, CEO at Fortalice Solutions, LLC., and the host of our CISO Spotlight series will share tips from her successful experience recruiting talented women into IT and cybersecurity.

Our cyber teams must be as diverse as the problems we are trying to solve

You’ve heard me say this many times, and I truly believe this: As an industry, we’ve already acknowledged the power of diversity—in artificial intelligence (AI). We have clear evidence that a variety of data across multiple sources and platforms enhances and improves AI and machine learning models. Why wouldn’t we apply that same advantage to our teams? This is one of several reasons why we need to take diversity and inclusion seriously:

  • Diverse teams make better and faster decisions 87 percent of the time compared with all male teams, yet the actual number of women in our field fluctuates between 10 and 20 percent. What ideas have we missed by not including more women?
  • With an estimated shortfall of 3.5 million security professionals by 2021, the current tech talent pipeline needs to expand—urgently.
  • Cyber criminals will continue to exploit the unconscious bias inherent in the industry by understanding and circumventing the homogeneity of our methods. If we are to win the cyber wars through the element of surprise, we need to make our strategy less predictable.

Mentoring networks must start early

Mentorship can be a powerful tool for increasing the number of women in cybersecurity. People select careers that they can imagine themselves doing. This process starts young. Recently a colleague’s pre-teen daughter signed up for an after-school robotics class. When she showed up at the class, only two other girls were in the room. Girls are opting out of STEM before they can (legally) opt into a PG-13 movie. But we can change this. By exposing girls to technology earlier, we can reduce the intimidation factor and get them excited. One group that is doing this is the Security Advisor Alliance. Get involved in organizations like this to reach girls and other underrepresented groups before they decide cybersecurity is not for them.

Building a strong network

Mentoring young people is important, but to solve the diversity challenges, we also need to bring in people who started on a different career path or who don’t have STEM degrees. You simply won’t find the talent you need through the anemic pipeline of college-polished STEM graduates. I recently spoke with Mari Galloway, a senior security architect in the gaming industry and CEO of the Women’s Society of Cyberjutsu (WSC) about this very topic in my podcast. She agreed on the importance of finding a mentor, and being a mentee.

Those seeking to get into cybersecurity need a network that provides the encouragement and constructive feedback that will help them grow. I have mentored several non-technical women who have gone on to have successful roles in cybersecurity. These relationships have been very rewarding for me and my mentees, which is why I advocate that everybody should become a mentor and a mentee.

If you haven’t broken into cybersecurity yet, or if you are in the field and want to grow your career, here are a few tips:

  • Close the skills gap through training and certificate programs offered by organizations like Sans Institute and ISC2. I am especially excited about Girls Go Cyberstart, a program for young people that Microsoft is working on with Sans Institute.
  • Build up your advocate bench with the following types of mentors:
    • Career advocate: Someone who helps you with your career inside your company or the one you want to enter.
    • Coach: Someone outside your organization who brings a different perspective to troubleshooting day-to-day problems.
    • Senior advisor: Someone inside or outside your organization who looks out for the next step in your career.
  • Use social media to engage in online forums, find local events, and reach experts. Several of my mentees use LinkedIn to start the conversation.
  • When you introduce yourself to someone online be clear that you are interested in their cumulative experience not just their job status.

For those already in cybersecurity, be open to those from the outside seeking guidance, especially if they don’t align with traditional expectations of who a cybersecurity professional is.

Mentorship relationships that yield results

A mentorship is only going to be effective if the mentee gets valuable feedback and direction from the relationship. This requires courageous conversations. It’s easy to celebrate a mentee’s visible wins. However, those moments are the result of unseen trench work that consists of course correcting and holding each other accountable to agreed upon actions. Be prepared to give and receive constructive, actionable feedback.

Creating inclusive cultures

More women and diverse talent should be hired in security not only because it is the right thing to do, but because gaining the advantage in fighting cybercrime depends on it. ​Mentorship is one strategy to include girls before they opt out of tech, and to recruit people from non-STEM backgrounds.

What’s next

Watch for Diana Kelley’s blog about how to create a culture that keeps women in the field.

Learn more about Girls Go Cyberstart.

Bookmark the Security blog to keep up with our expert coverage on security matters. Also, follow us at @MSFTSecurity for the latest news and updates on cybersecurity. Or reach out to me on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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