What it's like to be a woman in a mostly male industry

Think it's easier for a woman to get ahead in the security field now than it was a decade ago? Maybe not.

In the second decade of the 21st Century, it's easy to think that career success no longer hinges on gender and race. But Marisa Fagan knows what it's like to be a woman in the security industry, and it's not the utopia of equality some people might expect.

To succeed in security, Fagan says she's had to make some tough choices that men are rarely faced with. For a good example of this, she points to a recent column in the Cranky Product Manager blog about women having to deal with a "frat-house culture."

Also see "GE chief privacy leader: Women need to shed old rules for career success"

What it's like to...

"The article makes the point that technology jobs require intensely long hours and it's just more likely that a man can maintain that schedule, and therefore a manager wants to hire more men," Fagan says.

"I personally feel the effects of this dilemma every day as I choose work or travel or conferences over building more aspects of family life. Everyone must make sacrifices to get ahead. I won't venture to say why more men choose this particular sacrifice than women."

She has also discovered, to her discomfort, that the security conferences she attends are overwhelmingly dominated by men.

"When I go to a conference, I more often than not find myself to be the only woman in the room," she says. "There can be uncomfortable moments when one is the only woman in the group out at the bar afterwards as well. There is always a balancing act in the back of my mind between not wanting to miss out on the valuable relationships being formed in the 'hallway track'or at the bar, and not wanting to put myself in an untoward situation. Although, I don't think issues such as these would lessen if there were more women in security. It's just human nature to battle with professionalism."

As conference organizer for BayThreat, Fagan was initially concerned that she'd be tempted to choose women's talk proposals purely out of a desire to get some variety in the lineup. To her relief, the talks coming from women in the security industry were some of the best out there, making her decisions a little easier.

"There seems to be a culling that happens much earlier in a woman's life, such that if you've made it this far to be considering speaking, you're incredibly smart," she says.

"Researchers say that the problem of low numbers of women in technology happens in high school. I completely agree. I was one of the lucky few women to be acknowledged in the security community at age 15, and there has never been any doubt in my mind of what I would do with my life since," Fagan says.

Despite the challenges and uncomfortable situations she encountered along the way, Fagan has pushed forward, becoming one of the most respected women in security.

So too has Erin Jacobs, who chose to fight the gender battle in part by embracing her blonde-and-girly image. On Twitter, she goes by @SecBarbie. Her Twitter avatar and blog masthead feature a Barbie doll wearing a belt of dynamite.

Also see "2010 Women of Influence award winners named"

"Being a woman in the security industry can be challenging, but mostly when met with the adversity of stereotypes," she says. "If a female is competent, hard-working and ambitious, most of the stereotypes will resolve themselves."

From Jacobs' perspective, the hardest part about being a woman in the security industry or executive management has always been not being invited to certain events, such as golf outings, dinners and sports games, for fear that a woman in the group might make the frat-boy types uncomfortable, she says.

"Business relationships are built at these types of events," she says, "and getting your 6-inch heel in that door is still a tough one, but with the right assertion and proper communication, it too can be handled."

To be fair, being a woman in the security field isn't always hell, either. Leigh Hollowell, a security analyst at Trustwave and a graduate assistant at ­DePaul University, says the encouragement she receives from security professionals -- male and female -- has propelled her forward.

"These friends, school-sponsored mentoring groups, and an open and encouraging academic environment gave me a place where I felt I could try, and even screw up, new things," she says. "Without this type of environment and the amazing mentors that I connected with, I would be in a different field today."

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

8 pitfalls that undermine security program success