US-Council News

How to Crack Cybersecurity’s Glass Ceiling

Sage career advice to young women from the female CTO of a security startup: Get a pair of earplugs, and put them in when you hear words like 'can't' or 'don't.'

Does the "glass ceiling" still exist? On the one hand, a woman was almost elected president of the United States, and government statistics show that women constitute about half the US high-tech workforce. On the other hand, US Census data shows that of the women in the workforce, more work at lower-paying jobs than at higher-paying ones. And when it comes to the cybersecurity industry, women represent quite a slim margin, representing 11% of the world industry's workforce, making me somewhat of a unique creature.  

I'm the CTO of a cybersecurity startup called Secret Double Octopus (an odd name, but one people tend to remember), and it's my job to oversee the company's R&D operations and conduct the tech deep dive at client meetings. My immersion into a male-dominated environment dates back to my days as a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, where I served as a sabotage and mines instructor.

My professional career in cybersecurity began as part of my academic research as a PhD student at Hebrew University, where I focused on anomaly detection for zero-day attacks, fast pattern matching for deep packet inspection and software-defined networks (SDN), and then continued as a postdoctoral researcher at Ben-Gurion University in Beer Sheba with Professor Shlomi Dolev. It was there that JVP, one of Israel's leading venture capital firms, approached me because of my research and proposed practically applying my research, matching me with our CEO, Raz Rafaeli.

I wouldn't say I'm a women's rights activist by choice, but being in an executive position within the IT industry automatically makes me one, whether I like it or not. As a result, I've become a de facto spokesperson of sorts, advising young women professionals on how to make it in an industry where the glass ceiling is still pretty thick. My advice: Get a pair of earplugs, and put them in when you hear words like "can't" or "don't." It worked for me.

Fortunately for me, the path of STEM has been clear to me since I was a little girl. Thankfully, I do not experience the "thick glass ceiling" on a daily basis within my own team, but intentional or not, the fact of the matter is that cybersecurity is indeed a male-dominated field and, although we do live in a heightened gender-aware generation, gender biases still exist.

There are numerous reasons for this lingering sexism. According to a 2015 National Bureau of Economic Research study, teacher (both male and female) gender biases turn girls off from studying STEM subjects. These biases "have an asymmetric effect by gender — positive effect on boys' achievements and negative effect on girls. Such gender biases also impact students' enrollment in advanced level math courses in high school — boys positively and girls negatively," the study noted.

Others blame it on parents: According to the UK's Institution of Engineering and Technology, only half as many parents had tech aspirations for their daughters as they had for their sons while only 1% saw engineering as a career path for their daughters. Still others blamed the "geeky environment" in tech, with "girls' lower sense of belonging could be traced to lower feelings of fit with computer science stereotypes."

All this may be true, but there is a way to fight it: Determination. If the glass ceiling for deep tech is still thick, the good news is that there is a lot more support for girls in school today than there was when I was a student. High schools, universities, and the business world are much more sensitive to the glass ceiling than ever, and there is a plethora of organizations and programs that help girls get involved in math, science, and tech. I know some people are uncomfortable with preferential programs of this type, but they exist for a reason — and when there is an employment imbalance as in cybersecurity, such programs are more than justified.

In the end, it's about motivating yourself, believing in yourself. Don't let others' attitudes put you off from your goal. I know it sounds like a cliché, but it's still true: You have to believe in yourself, and believe that you are just as good as men — and maybe better because we're blessed with women's intuition, and that's one thing they will never have.