Sharon De Cet, Senior Threat Advisor & Customer Success Manager at European Threat Intelligence Partner QuoIntelligence, shares her experience as an official mentor for the Women4Cyber Foundation Mentorship Programme. Sharon is resolutely dedicated to eradicating gender bias in the cybersecurity field through her work at this foundation, equipping women at all career stages by sharing essential skills and instilling confidence.
Sharon, can you tell us more about the Women4Cyber Mentorship Programme and how it aligns with your personal and professional values?
Women4Cyber Mentorship programme is designed to help women improve their skills and advance their cybersecurity careers at all levels. The program is now running its 4th edition – which is striking because I am also finishing my 4th year in the cybersecurity industry.
Currently, according to the international cybersecurity membership organization (ISC)2, women make up 24% of the cybersecurity workforce, with much lower percentages in some parts of the world. This often translates into more challenges for women not only to be hired but also to be equally treated in the cybersecurity domain. As a firm believer in the equality among genders, the Women4Cyber mentorship program seemed like the perfect fit for advocating for that equality while keeping fostering knowledge and awareness of cybersecurity and related topics in the broader society. Even better if that can support fellow women in improving their career, self-confidence and if that can build a more equal world.
As my background includes social sciences, political sciences, and international security, this opportunity was the perfect blend of drivers, motivation, and values that represent me with the aim to foster a better professional world for women who are seeking to improve their careers and re-shape a system not always very ‘welcoming’.
What motivated you to become a mentor in the cybersecurity field, especially for women?
As said above. Even if the representation of women in the cybersecurity industry is generally improving, still, the farther up the ladder you go, the more acute that problem becomes: of those 24% of women who make up the cybersecurity workforce, some studies show that only 1% are in senior leadership positions.
This isn’t just a representation problem; it’s a security problem. Why? Well, if you take into account over the past 22 years, there were slightly more men than women living on the planet and that there is such a few share of women being employed in the cybersecurity industry… the whole industry is at risk. If the industry’s goal is to make a better secured society cybersecurity-wise, it is just impossible to think about a secure society without considering women, who make up the half of that very society.
You mentioned mentoring a woman with 10 years more experience than you in the industry. What was your observation from this occurrence?
Well, I felt extremely honoured. Firstly, because I realized my generation (I was born in 1994 for the record) likely is the first to be born with an “embedded” IT culture. Secondly, my generation was one of the first to be aware from a relatively young age of this gender gap in cybersecurity, which has by now become a thriving industry. Mentoring a senior professional not only really put my whole career in perspective (i.e. age is just a number and realizing the importance of continuous learning), but also made me realize that actually there is an extremely skilled female workforce out there in cybersecurity ready just to be trained. The market should leverage this opportunity.
Cybersecurity is a rapidly evolving field. How do you stay updated, and how do you incorporate new knowledge into your mentoring?
Luckily, I have excellent colleagues who keep me informed.
Jokes aside, I believe networking, continuous learning, time for OSINT, and an excellent employer that supports learning opportunities and ensures work-life balance, plus a lot of curiosity are the perfect mix for me. I can leverage what QuoIntelligence puts at my disposal (learning budget, flexible schedule, etc.) to attend conferences, showcase our/my knowledge, and exchange new knowledge from intel talents, firms, and markets. A good dose of curiosity and excellent organizational skills make up for the rest, allowing me enough free time to explore the depths of the internet and to speak to diverse sources and mentors.
From your experience, what are the common obstacles women face in the cybersecurity industry, and how does mentorship help in overcoming them?
I would say in general all tech/stem domains are mainly male dominated for historical reasons.
Underrepresentation, lack of technical skills (i.e.: how many times in primary schools I have been told “girls are better at languages, boys at maths…”, that made an actual impact in real life).
I’d like to quote this paragraph, that in my opinion summarizes my experience very well:
“According to a study conducted by D’Hondt (2016), barriers for women pursuing a career in cybersecurity consist of militaristic/male-gendered culture and stereotypes, recruitment practices from companies, bias in the hiring process, and branding. When explaining the militaristic/male gendered culture stereotypes, D’Hondt (2016) discusses the dominance of men that appear in movies or television shows about cybersecurity or hacking. Women are rarely included in these roles in shows but when they are, their characters are often portrayed as “goth” or something out of the everyday norm for a work environment. In the education environment, women are often ignored in group projects or are marginalized.”
In general, I agree that I often felt I had to prove myself more than my male colleagues. In some instances, my ideas were dismissed or overlooked simply because of my gender. Additionally, I encountered subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) biases and stereotypes that questioned my technical abilities solely based on being a woman.
Via mentorship, not only is one able to dismantle gender bias, but you actually build a community based on skills and a culture of security that will ensure the future of the cybersecurity industry. I believe mentorship is the way to build a safer cyber world, but also a safer world for gender, for personalities to express themselves, and where one’s skills and ethic will be the main and most relevant evaluation parameters.
Could you elaborate on the importance of “updating” our workforce with cyber skills and how organizations can support this endeavor?
Crucial, but this update should be relevant. It is Important to be aware and also ‘update’ one’s Espiritu critico. The better way I can think of this is organizations supporting their employees by:
- Identifying their strengths and unique skills.
- Freeing relevant time (often in the form of not overloading the employee with work just because they are ‘good at everything’), aka realizing the value of that employee’s time.
- Unlock budget for employee education.
How do you see the future of women in cybersecurity, and what role does mentorship play in shaping this future?
I think that women will soon be recognized as crucial. There are currently millions of unfulfilled cybersecurity roles worldwide, a scarcity predicted to persist for years to come. The solution is right in front of us: hiring should become more inclusive and more women should be brought into the cybersecurity field, in order to tap into a pool of skilled individuals with vast potential that has, so far, been underutilized. And this is exactly the role of mentorship: encourage that talent to try, to go out, and to be seen so that it can thrive and make the cybersecurity industry grow.
Sharon, in your experience, what unique qualities do women bring to the cybersecurity field that may be different from their male counterparts?
I am not a fan of stereotypes, but I believe women are generally more able to see shades and nuances, a crucial skill in Cyber Threat Intelligence. Speaking about Customer Success Management roles, I feel women bring a holistic approach and really are able to deliver long-term value to customers, better articulate critical messages (i.e. threat advisory), and are better at nurturing relationships.
When it comes to technical skills, it is a myth that men are more competent in dealing with practical subjects or dealing with technologies. Truth is boys are given more opportunities to get exposure to practical ability-based job options and vice-versa than girls.
How does the Women4Cyber Mentorship Programme specifically tailor its approach to address the challenges and needs of women in cybersecurity?
By pairing mentor and mentee based on similar backgrounds/job positions but different seniority levels. This enables a win-win dynamic that ensures both mentor and mentee an opportunity to grow and exchange.
What do you think are the key factors that can help increase the participation of women in cybersecurity across various levels of expertise?
- It’s important to engage girls in STEM early in life.
- Role models and senior encouragement are critical.
- In many circumstances, social or cultural norms constrain a woman’s choice of what she can study, and unpaid child (and household) care responsibilities limit a woman’s ability to enter or succeed in a career in cybersecurity. Equal distribution of those responsibilities among genders is a key factor for me for increasing participation of women in cyber.
How does the program help women navigate the often male-dominated landscape of cybersecurity? Are there specific strategies you recommend?
Mainly by providing a safe space for discussions between cyber practitioners of different backgrounds and ages. These discussions often take the form of situational training which to me is a great tool that helps women advocate for their position in the industry in real life.
How does the Women4Cyber Mentorship Programme foster a sense of community among women in cybersecurity, and why is that important?
Apart from the mentoring, W4C includes national chapters, cross-country conferences, and also a vibrant network related to job posting and mobility. This is also important as it multiplies the outreach making cyber employment opportunities more tailored to one’s specific geographical area/market while attracting a like-minded network.
Hacking Gender Barriers Conference
The Women4Cyber Conference, “Hacking Gender Barriers,” is taking place in Madrid on November 14 – 15, 2023. This ECSO-backed event is your opportunity to actively participate in advancing gender diversity within the field of cybersecurity. Don’t miss the chance to be a part of this important conversation.
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