Leading women in information security careers came together this week for the 8th annual Executive Women's Forum, an event launched in 2002 by recruiting firm Alta Associates to provide women in the field with a place to network and exchange ideas and advice. This year's keynote speaker, Nuala O'Connor Kelly, chief privacy leader and senior counsel with General Electric, spoke not about how women can manage risk and innovate for employers, but how they can manage risk and innovate as a person to elevate their career.
In her presentation, Kelly spoke to the women in attendance about moving from supporting roles in information security and risk management to leadership positions. The information security field continues to be male-dominated. According to SANS salary and certification survey for 2008, only 17 percent of the respondents were women. Kelly suggests changing that and bringing more diversity to infosec means women need to reconsider how they themselves are approaching their jobs, and perhaps find new ways to gain recognition and become leaders. (Related: Are you too perfect to be an effective security manager?)
"Are we bringing old roles and rules about women into the workplace?" Kelly asked.
Kelly recounted the story of a successful friend who had been working on a particular team within the same company for 12 years. After a recent victory in completing a major milestone for a client, the friend learned her superior on the team was leaving the company, taking the entire team with him -- except for her.
"How did you let this happen?" Kelly said she asked the friend.
Her friend said she had been head down, focused on the project and the needs of the client, and never saw it coming. This work ethic, while admirable, is common among women and can sometimes lead to career missteps, noted Kelly. Instead, she argued, women need to get over the 'should' of what they need to do, and take a more active role in looking out for themselves. This approach takes many forms, she said, and includes letting go of guilt, voicing ideas that may be unpopular, and honoring what she called 'genius space.'
"What are the things you lose track of time doing? Find out what that is and do more of it," she said.
Kelly also asked attendants to question whether the role of 'good girl' was limiting potential. She challenged them to throw away certain 'safe' notions of how women should act in the workplace and instead to take risks and insist on being heard by decision makers in the organization.
"Take your place at the grown-up's table, and do something with it," she said.
In round-table discussions during the session, women shared advice and stories about their career paths. Shira Rubinoff, founder and president of Green Armor Solutions, a vendor of online authentication technologies, said she believes women who want to be successful should listen to themselves and trust their intuition, rather than other opinions, when making decisions. She noted when she was first launching her business, she heard negative comments and discouragement coming from many sources. Instinctively, she said, she knew the naysayers were wrong.
"Intuition is your best friend," said Rubinoff, whose business was profitable within a year of releasing products. "You need to go with your gut, both personally and professionally."