Women in cyber-security: conquering imposter syndrome
Women in cyber-security: conquering imposter syndrome
My name is Lindsay Brechler - I have been in technology and software fields my whole career, focused specifically on the cyber-security industry for almost a decade now. Not only that, I'm dedicated to using my personal time and side projects to get more women into the industry.

The most important thing to remember is that cyber-security is everyone's problem, not male or female; they didn't breach Equifax just to get male cardholder data, and there is no field on a firewall rule to allow, or deny, access based on gender. But without including the large number of females who are more than capable of solving today's cyber-security problems, the industry is missing out – and it's hugely unnecessary. 

Women are often plagued by imposter syndrome when they don't have near-equal representation in a space. It can apply to any environment or any gender or ethnic group, but it is especially risky for women in the security industry. Imposter syndrome is a perception issue, not a skill issue. It makes you feel like you don't belong; that you will be found to be a fraud. Imposter syndrome also leads to women attributing their success to luck or miscalculation, and prevents them from publicising their own hard, skilled work. This is a shame, because when I do encounter females in this industry, they are really ‘on it'. I really admire their work. 

Luckily, I've had strong mentorship and support to stop me from sliding into that mentality. One male mentor early on told me to speak up. I felt like an imposter when I didn't have “all the answers,” so he clued me in on a "secret": I was equally as certain as anyone else in the room, including my male peers. I was just the only one second-guessing my responses. Understanding this made me more comfortable in all-male environments, being active and assertive in meetings became commonplace for me. 

My own experience and other mentors showed me that not everyone has the same benefit. Men can help encourage their female colleagues by validating their interesting research and thought leadership, by giving them time to speak in meetings, and as managers, giving them time to pursue training and advanced certifications - then they have the qualifications to prove (even if it is just to themselves) their mastery. This level of encouragement is very important to giving the female employee a sense of belonging if she is in a male-dominated environment. And, in a win-win, it helps create female role models for the next wave of female employees.

Cyber-security is just one area of technology which is under-served by women. In my world, being a female in cyber-security does not mean you're coding all the time. There are plenty of diverse roles, encompassing all sorts of skills. To encourage more women to apply for positions in cyber-security, companies should think outside the traditional "job title" box; beyond “we need coders” (or sysadmins or product managers). 

State the problem you need the candidate to solve – "detect patterns of users exfiltrating personal data," or "build new ways for enterprises to centrally configure policy." Women may be put off by a list of skills or technologies (she won't enter the field if she doesn't have all the listed "preferred" skills), but may be more willing to do anything necessary to solve an interesting problem. Women definitely have the emotional intelligence to dig deep into the customer problem and understand where they're coming from, balance business and technical tradeoffs, and then execute the required technical solution.

The industry certainly has further to go, but it's great to see progress being made. Companies are keen to hire women into development roles, but I, like many, do not want it to be at the expense of hiring capable male candidates. Candidly, I only want to work with the best - men OR women. 

Meritocracy is rightly top of the priority list for managers, and they should not lose sight of it. But encouraging capable female candidates by writing interesting job descriptions, encouraging their active participation in projects, and supporting their professional development will hold imposter syndrome at bay and help meritocracies identify their best, even when they're not self-promoting. This is how we'll break down remaining organisational and societal barriers. 

I spend my spare time at schools and universities nurturing capable female candidates to help get them ready for the world of cyber-security. I hope the next generation of women entering the industry will feel as excited and up for the challenge as I do. 

Contributed by Lindsay Brechler, product manager, FireMon

*Note: The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of SC Media UK or Haymarket Media (though in this case we are happy to make an exception and confirm we do support those views).