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Women in Tech: Exploring the Benefits of Diversity in Cybersecurity with Niloofar Razi Howe

Niloofar Razi HoweRSA’s Chief Strategy Officer Niloofar Razi Howe has spent more than 25 years working in for or investing in technology companies, with a focus in the past decade on the security industry. We sat down with her to talk about her career, what challenges she sees for women in the security industry, and how diversity affects the workplace.

You can read the first part of our conversation with Niloofar Razi Howe on innovation and security here

RSAC: What inspired your interest in cybersecurity?

Howe: As more and more of our businesses and our lives have become “digital,” cybersecurity has become one of the biggest challenges for enterprises and individuals today. I personally love a challenge!

What particularly excites me right now is the fact that the security industry must fundamentally reinvent itself in order to actually solve the problems that our customers face. The old ways of doing security with perimeters and attack signatures no longer work, and the future of security is being written right now. I want to help write the new rules and ensure that the internet remains an open and trusted method of communication and interaction, without sacrificing our core values—privacy, freedom, trust.

RSAC: Based on your experience in the workplace, what are the greatest challenges women face in pursuing careers in technology? 

Howe: There is an analogy I like to use—I love skiing, and especially tree skiing. When you go tree skiing your mindset is really important because your skis will go where your eyes go. So if you focus on the trees, you will end up wrapped around one. But if you focus no the path through the trees, you will make it through. 

In my career, I have always stayed focused on the path in front of me and not on the obstacles around me. We all face obstacles—because of our race, gender, education, experience, family situation, personality, our colleagues’ personalities, etc., and we have to find our path around those obstacles. Now, women do face one unique challenge when pursuing careers in technology—and that is the lack of mentors. Mentorship matters, and there are not enough women in senior positions to serve as mentors to the legions of millennial women working their way into the tech sector. Of course this raises the broader issue of the virtue of diversity in the workplace. 

RSAC: Are there assets or a unique perspective you think women can bring to technology and other STEM fields? 

Howe: I think every individual has the potential to bring unique assets and perspective to the task at hand; be it technology, other STEM fields, or other endeavors entirely. Women do tend to approach and solve problems differently than men—not better or worse, just differently— and when you’re trying to solve problems, why wouldn’t you want all options on the table? To not tap the differences we all bring is shortsighted and as studies have shown, hurts both innovation and profitability.

RSAC: How can achieving gender balance in the workplace help bring men and women together rather than drive them apart?  

Howe: Gender balance is not a male or female issue. It should not be divisive or controversial. Diversity is a virtue for many reasons, not the least of which is that it leads to better innovations, performance, and outcomes. From an economically ruthless perspective, everyone benefits from a diverse workplace.   

RSAC: How do you handle managing your own implicit biases about what different groups, men vs. women, younger workers vs. older, are capable of or excel at in tech?

Howe: I can’t imagine that there are people without bias—positive and negative. We all have them. There is a fantastic book on the impact of bias on performance called Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us by Claude Steele, and I would encourage anyone interested in the topic to read it.

I continually challenge myself to make sure that I am hiring the best and the brightest, and that I am aware of and don’t allow my biases to overly influence my decisions in one direction or another in the hiring process. Our job is too hard, our workload too heavy, and some semblance of normalcy too important to not hire the most qualified candidate, including balancing the need for diversity in order to improve performance. The bigger issue I’ve encountered, and the one that requires real institutional effort, is making sure the pipeline of candidates for any position is intentionally diverse. 

RSAC: How can we get more girls interested in cybersecurity? 

Howe: This is an issue with deep cultural roots that we don’t have the time to go into, but I loved Mark Zuckerberg’s recent response to a woman who wanted her granddaughters to date nerds in their schools since they could end up being be the next Mark Zuckerberg, “Even better would be to encourage them to *be* the nerd in their school so they can be the next successful inventor.”

Fundamentally, we need to get more girls interested in the STEM disciplines, but to do that we need more female mentors and role models. We need to celebrate these women, and make sure their stories are told and are heard so that we can inspire girls to pursue careers in technology, including cybersecurity. The problem is not that there are not great women whose stories are inspiring and compelling—there are!  From Ada Lovelace (Lord Byron’s daughter) who wrote the first computer program, to Hedy Lamar (a Hollywood Siren) who jointly invented CDMA technology, to Admiral Grace Hopper (the “Admiral of the Cyber Sea”) who developed COBOL, the first programming language to use words rather than numbers—there are amazing women whose accomplishments in technology we ought to celebrate.

Second, we need more venues where women and girls can gather to talk about career paths in technology broadly and cybersecurity specifically. We need to move past the conversation about how hard it is to be a female in the tech world, and into how rewarding it is to work in such a dynamic and fast-evolving market that touches every aspect of our lives and has a real and profound impact on our society and the future. 

Finally, we need to fundamentally change the perception that cybersecurity is for hackers with tattoos sporting black hoodies—yes, of course we have them, but certainly not to the exclusion of more neutral wardrobe choices. While I do sport the occasionally hoodie, I remain tattoo-less to date. Our field is not a lifestyle, it’s a mission—if we can get that message out, we will attract talented people, including women into the field.

RSAC: What advice do you have for women who want to pursue STEM careers?

Howe: With apologies to Nike, just do it. Look at me. I’m an English literature major. I’m not an engineer or computer scientist by training, but I followed my heart and interests and studied further and here I am. That’s the great thing about technology today. The field has grown so big and pervasive that it takes all types. EMC’s Critical Incident Response Center (CIRC), arguably one of the leading CIRCs in the world, has an analyst on staff that was a history major in college. Yes, we need a lot of women engineers and scientists but we need philosophers, psychologists, historians, and more as well.

You can hear Niloofar Razi Howe speak at the RSA Women's Leadership Forum Reception on Tuesday, March 1, 2016, in San Francisco. You can find more details here

Posted on January 12, 2016

Jennifer Lawinski

by Jennifer Lawinski

Editor-In-Chief, RSA Conference

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