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Women in cybersecurity need to take more risks

May 08, 20174 mins

A 'Yes I Can' attitude can determine the trajectory of a career in cyber

Group of diverse women standing lined up in a row
Credit: Thinkstock

I’ve alluded to the 1980’s film The Neverending Story before, and I will again because it is rich with little nuggets of wisdom that transcend time, generation, gender, and industry.

When the hero, Atreyu, has to pass through the Sphinx’s gate, his self-confidence is challenged. The test for anyone trying to pass is to make it through without the Sphinxes opening their eyes. 

“The Sphinxes can see right through you,” the old scientist, Engywook, warns Atreyu. “Brave men find that they are cowards.”

What Atreyu needs to do is believe in himself. He needs to be confident. Indeed, he finds that inner strength and safely passes through the gate that leads to his success.

Much in the same way, Rinki Sethi, director of information security at Palo Alto Networks, needed to bring a lot of confidence and skills to the gates of cybersecurity when she began her career. 

“When you are new, you kind of feel lost. You get most of your experience in your first job, but when you look to the left and right and nobody looks like you, you are already intimidated,” Sethi said.

In that process of learning on the first job, she didn’t have anyone to go to. She had to find her own strength, which she was able to do in part by seeking out help from mentors.

Her advice for any woman who is new to cybersecurity, whether she’s looking for technical mentorship or peer sharing, is to seek out those people with whom you can meet and share stories. 

“It could be someone you are working with that you can meet with to talk through successes or challenges. Approach somebody and let them known that you’re new or mid career. It could start even as a friend, any of those people you naturally gravitate toward, or somebody in a leadership role,” Sethi said.

What helped her to gain confidence was seeking out and growing friendships with other women in the work place with whom she could share personal stories. “Over time, what has driven the most change in me is getting critical feedback. That mostly came from my peers. That is mentoring in its own way,” Sethi said.

Women are more likely to share things, and there are going to be many moments or situations that women walk into that are going to be tougher, said Sethi because women don’t take enough risks.

“Any question you ask, whether it’s in a new role, working on a new project, or asking for a raise, you are taking a risk. Because of the possible no, women tend to not ask the question,” said Sethi.

Her advice, which echoes that of Engywook, is to be confident. “Put yourself out there, take risks.”

If you are a woman who is not putting yourself out there and willing to take risks, Sethi said, “It’s on you. You have to ask yourself, ‘Why am I not asking that question? What am I afraid of? What kind of risk am I taking here?’ The worst thing that is going to happen is that someone says no.”

Taking risks with confidence, though, is not easy to do especially when you are new, and that’s where the need for mentorship comes in. “Mentors are different from sponsors, though. Sponsors are advocates for you, that are helping you progress. Definitely latch onto that,” said Sethi, but N00bs also need mentors.

For some reason, Sethi said, women also tend to believe they can’t take on new things. In applying for a job, they might read the qualifications and say, ‘I only have 10% of what’s asked there.’ They have to have faith that they are where they are, because of their skills, especially in the space of cyber.

Another way for female N00bs to gain confidence by both applying and growing their skills is through cyber defense competitions. “Those activities that happen outside of work. That’s one of the ways we find women. Some of the winning teams at those events are those that have diversity,” Sethi said.

The fact that women only represent 11 percent of the cybersecurity workforce might seem like a formidable obstacle, but that can change. When more women take risks, grow their networks, and highlight their strong skills, they will gain confidence and might even inspire confidence in others. 

If all else fails, just watch The Neverending Story.

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Kacy Zurkus is a freelance writer for CSO and has contributed to several other publications including The Parallax, and K12 Tech Decisions. She covers a variety of security and risk topics as well as technology in education, privacy and dating. She has also self-published a memoir, Finding My Way Home: A Memoir about Life, Love, and Family under the pseudonym "C.K. O'Neil."

Zurkus has nearly 20 years experience as a high school teacher on English and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University (2011). She earned a Master's in Education from University of Massachusetts (1999) and a BA in English from Regis College (1996). Recently, The University of Southern California invited Zurkus to give a guest lecture on social engineering.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Kacy Zurkus and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.

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