Of the nearly four million people working in cybersecurity around the world, 75% are men. There are some quite obvious reasons for such an enormous gender imbalance, but research from the World Economic Forum recently identified low awareness of the industry, a lack of role models and mentors and imposter syndrome as three key issues in attracting new female and non-binary hires.
The United Nations Observance of International Women’s Day in 2023 is under the theme of ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality’, stating that “Bringing women and other marginalised groups into technology results in more creative solutions.” This is certainly a position supported by Zoë Rose, Information Security Team Lead, and Sakina Asadova, an Offensive Security Expert who both work across Canon EMEA from the Netherlands. They are highly experienced and respected cybersecurity professionals, and both recently received nominations at the ‘Most Inspiring Women in Cyber Awards 2022’. The pair speak to VIEW about how they came to be part of the industry they love, some of the challenges they faced and words of advice for those following in their footsteps.
How did you find yourselves in cybersecurity careers?
Zoë: I was always a curious person and always the one who asked “why?”, but I was very insecure and never thought I was good enough for technology. However, during an extremely difficult time in my life, I used technology to get myself out of it. So, it was a mix of being a shy child – wanting a career where I didn't have to be around people – as well as learning the skills I needed to protect myself, with the goal of being the person I needed to be. When I started my own business in Canada, I was a ‘Managed Service Provider’ because where I grew up, cybersecurity wasn't a distinct thing, it was generalised under IT. The main reason I started my business in Canada, was because I found it difficult to get a job in technology as a woman back then.
When I moved to the UK. I officially became a security person, although I still count the work I did in Canada as security, even though they were very different use cases – I was looking at networking and environment infrastructure. When I moved, I still had to secure the network. I still had to secure the environment. I still had to provide awareness and why security was important. But I also was dealing with ultra-high net worth individuals, people with high profiles and celebrities. It wasn’t just building them a secure environment but figuring out what worked for their lifestyles, and investigating when things didn’t go as expected. So, I got to do really cool and interesting investigations, situations that an everyday person may not be in.
Sakina: I studied computer science after school, and then I realised that I have the ability to see what’s wrong – especially in software. So, for example, I was developing mobile applications for my bachelor’s, and I realised that I was automatically looking for what can go wrong. At that point I thought, “okay, it seems like I can do this, so why am I not looking into it?” At that time, cyber was not a big hit, yet and I didn't even know if there were study options available. But I was already interested in hacking, and as you can imagine that’s quite a man's world. Girls weren’t expected to be interested in hacking or engage in activities that involved breaking into computer systems, spending days or nights in front of a computer, trying to find some kind of backdoors.
I found a university scholarship for cyber, and I applied. I won the scholarship and was admitted to the school. And that's where my journey began – it was like a new beginning. You can of course, go for defence or offensive, it's up to you, but when I started, I didn't know what I wanted to do. In my class there were around 20 students, and I was the only girl. I knew it would be hard, but I wanted to go for it. I was motivated by all these smart brains, and I wanted to be one of them – not just because I’m a woman, but because I was studying alongside people who had been doing this since they were eleven or twelve and it inspired me to work even harder, because I wanted to be at least as good as them – or better.