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Minority Report: A Man at the Executive Women’s Forum

Nov 01, 20054 mins
Data and Information SecurityIT Leadership

I had the interestingly odd experience of being the only male at the Executive Women's Forum

In mid-September I had the interestingly odd experience of being the only male at a conference of information security practitionersthe annual meeting of the Executive Women’s Forum (EWF), held in Phoenix. Since the late 1980s, I’ve attended plenty of conferencessome of them my company’s own eventswhere three or four women looked stoically ill at ease among 400 or so male CIOs, who I’m sure regarded these outliers as perplexing, exotic creatures.

In Phoenix, my fellow attendees couldn’t have been nicer. I was on hand to help bestow EWF’s Women of Influence awards, which CSO sponsors. Introduced by EWF founder Joyce Brocaglia (she also heads up Alta Associates, an executive recruitment firm that specializes in security positions), I went to the podium and said, “In case you were wondering, I’m the guy.” A heckler at a table far from the stage shouted, “Prove it!” I couldn’t have felt more welcome.

Throughout my stay, I was repeatedly asked whether I felt outnumbered. “Uh, sort of….” Eventually, I began replying that we have much more in common, being involved in the security profession and all. My hosts smiled at this nonsense, much as they might have pretended to admire Custer commenting on the sunny Little Big Horn weather smiling down on Sioux and cavalry alike.

Gender considerations aside, the EWF attendees are stellar security leaders, many more preachers than choir members. Becky Bace of Infidel; Rhonda MacLean, former CISO of Bank of America; Oracle’s Mary Ann Davidson; Symantec’s Sarah Gordon, a Women of Influence award recipient; and former Merck CISO Pamela Fusco, also an honoree. Any of them could go toe-to-toe with the best of the guys, who would all be challenged to prove it.

I’m sure that the members of the Executive Women’s Forum spend most of their time focused single-mindedly on the substantive work of their careers in information security. But when they gather for an event like this, they get to step back and think about the predicament of being women in a world overwhelmingly dominated by men.

The depth of feeling in this biological conundrum was apparent in the wake of an extraordinary speech by Jayshree Ullal, senior VP and GM of Cisco Systems’ Security Technology Group. Ullal was moving, witty and inspiring in recounting some of her life’s tipping points, moments whose meaning, as occasions for showing courage and taking action, becomes clear only in retrospect.

The Q&A period after Ullal’s speech erupted into a passionate and revealing discussion the likes of which I’ve never seen at a mainly male eventa stirring colloquy on how to survive in indifferent or hostile circumstances. One after another, women in the audience rose to share their experiences (a common thread involved being the only woman in a room full of male engineers). The lone male in the room began to squirm a little. A woman from Japan, now the CEO of her own company, confessed that earlier in her career she had adopted male business garb, short hair and other male modes of behavior in order to be accepted. Now, she said, she has learned it was a mistake to try to succeed on unnatural terms. Her hair was now long, her clothing feminine, her manner self-assured.

Finding myself for once in the unaccustomed role of official very small minority, I tried to imagine a roomful of men stopping, even briefly, to consider the effect of being male upon their own careers and actions. I doubt it would ever happen. And yet we’ve seen, in the recent sentencing of notorious executive miscreants, the consequences of unchecked aggressiveness, entitlement, arrogance, self-certainty and a lack of introspectionall typically male traits. So perhaps it’s an overdue discussion for men in business to have.