Embracing Diversity in Cybersecurity – Key Takeaways From Palo Alto Networks Ignite Diversity Panel

Jul 06, 2017
6 minutes

Palo Alto Networks hosted its first-ever diversity panel session at Ignite, our annual end user conference, held this year in Vancouver, Canada. The session, “Embracing Diversity: The Catalyst to Effectively Solve Today’s Toughest Cyber Challenges,” was co-chaired by Carly Chaikin of the popular USA Network cybersecurity TV series “Mr. Robot” and our own Rick Howard, CSO at Palo Alto Networks. The panel was focused on discussing ways to encourage diversity in the field of cybersecurity as a means to protect today’s computing environments, including why different skillsets and cultural perspectives are instrumental in fostering innovation in the space.

Panelists included cybersecurity leaders from different career backgrounds, genders and ethnicities. With speakers from academia, government and industry, the audience heard a range of perspectives on cybersecurity as a career and ways to increase diversity in the field. Our speakers included Suzie Smibert, CISO at Finning International; Christina Ayiotis, co-chair of the advisory board at Georgetown Cybersecurity Law Institute; Teri Takai, former CIO at the U.S. Department of Defense and state of California; Lieutenant General Rhett Hernandez, former Commander of the U.S. Army Cyber Command; and Rinki Sethi, senior director of information security, Palo Alto Networks, U.S.

As a member of the organizing committee for the panel, I had been a little worried that only women would show up to the session, even though men also have an important role to play in increasing diversity in gender, perspectives and backgrounds in the field. However, it was amazing to see the high turnout of male attendees at the session and how much they cared about the diversity challenge in cybersecurity. The event allowed both women and men to share their insights and feelings on the subject. My colleagues and I go to many cybersecurity conferences around the world, and almost always, over 90 percent of audience and speakers at these events are men. It is rare to see female speakers.

According to the Women’s Society of Cyberjutsu, only 11 percent of the information security workforce is women. About 50 percent of IT users are women, so why not increase the ratio of women in cybersecurity to prevent successful cyberattacks and protect the digital age in which we live? It’s clear we need to bring more women into cybersecurity.

It was a full house in the panel room, and the vibe was electric. I sincerely hope that everyone who participated in the event felt inspired to join or stay in the cybersecurity field, or to encourage their colleagues, mentees, daughters and sons to be part of this exciting area. Every panelist emphasized the importance of having the courage to withstand potential judgment of their background or gender, and to bring their unique perspectives to their workplace. Even if some people may judge your past, not your prospects, you have to be brave enough to break away from that negativity, stay true to yourself and shatter the glass ceiling.

This should not discourage you from having a mentor or mentors who can challenge and help you grow professionally. Cybersecurity covers a wide variety of areas of expertise, such as artificial intelligence, business management and strategy, coding, endpoints, legal, networking, government policy, reverse engineering, and threat intelligence, just to name a few. Nobody knows everything about cybersecurity, and this field requires teamwork and collaboration. For this reason, the flexibility to accept different ideas and perspectives is indispensable.

Toward the end of the session, an attendee asked the speakers for career advice. She shared how she felt intimidated and unsure if she was “good enough” to get a new position she was aspiring to have. She’s not alone: A lot of people relate to her in this competitive market. To this courageous question, one panelist encouraged her to avoid using diminishing descriptions about herself and her skillset, and to stand and speak with confidence. This is just the first step to becoming more confident in the workplace and making changes in her professional life.

Cybersecurity is evolving quickly. Those in the field need to be competitive and open to new perspectives to stay up to date on the latest cyberthreats and technology. As Japanese mathematician Dr. Masahiko Fujiwara pointed out in his essay, “Gakumon wo kokorozasu hito he – Hanna heno tegami [To those who want to be in academia – my letter to Hanna],” those who want to be academics need to develop certain characteristics: be intellectually curious, be ambitious, and stay persistent and optimistic, even when things are difficult and you want to give up your goal. This also applies to cybersecurity professionals. If you can keep pushing the envelope for years, you can be anything – a C-suite executive, a general or a top-notch researcher – and pave the way for the next generation of upcoming cybersecurity talent.

Over the last few months, I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with four young women from different backgrounds and nationalities, from an undergraduate student to a mid-career professional. They are passionate about studying technology and policy and finding a job that bridges the gap between the two communities, which have their own unique cultures and languages. Witnessing their intellectual curiosity and ambition during our phone calls and face-to-face meetings made me smile. Many more women around the world are also enthusiastic about cybersecurity, which provides hope for the field as well as for increasing diversity in cybersecurity globally. They are our future.

The diversity panel occurred at the perfect time: right after the Ignite General Session, when Palo Alto Networks President Mark Anderson announced the new partnership between Palo Alto Networks and the Girl Scouts to deliver the first-ever national Girl Scout Cybersecurity badges for girls in grades K–12. This will allow us to work with girls across the U.S. and teach them about the cyberthreat landscape and best practices, as well as provide mentorship for young girls interested in cybersecurity.

I look forward to staying in touch with the diversity panel speakers and participants, and to working with the Girl Scouts to bring new, diversified talents and insights to cybersecurity.

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