A few months ago I spoke to Ellen Sundra, chief customer officer at Forescout, not long after her promotion to the role. She shared a story of an employee who said he loved reporting to her, because she was “very motherly.”
Her response: "Say that never again. I am not your mother.”
To be fair the comment was meant as a compliment, affirming Sundra’s efforts to champion employees, to provide guidance. But it also spotlights what I have come to regard as a counterproductive argument among some advocating for more women in the workplace — that women innately bring much needed "soft skills" to the traditionally technical cybersecurity leadership community.
Can we just move on from that notion? Women in this community have so much more to offer.
Consider the roster of our 2021 Women in IT Security honorees, unveiled today: advocates, cybersecurity veterans, power players and women to watch. Now in our eighth year celebrating significant and consequential contributions of women to the field and community, we recognize an intelligence director. We recognize a chief technology officer. We recognize venture investors, a chief product officer and company founders. We have 20 women who demonstrate through their titles, their background, and their impact a technical expertise that is foundational to their success in cybersecurity.
And included in our coverage for the package this year is the chief information security officer of Twitter; the first Black and Latina woman to be elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 2017, now running for lieutenant governor on the Democratic ticket, who worked in cybersecurity for two decades with the Coast Guard; the former deputy director of health information privacy at the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights; the list goes on.
Obviously, none of these women would be where they are today if they did not communicate well with colleagues and partners, embrace collaboration, empower teams and inspire leadership. That much is true. But the fact is that these women — so many women — are exceptional for the diversity they demonstrate within themselves; their power comes by way of a multitude of strengths.
Indeed, championing the hiring of women because they are supposedly more empathetic or more nurturing — even if arguments can be made for that being true — places them again in a very specific box. It also unconsciously provides a pass to male counterparts who fall short in the so-called “soft skills,” or vice versa, fails to give credit to men who excel. That does the cybersecurity market at large — still desperately trying to plug workforce gaps — a disservice. This is not about relegation by gender. This is about leveraging the best of an extraordinary complete self.
“Banish the term soft skills; it feels squishy and unimportant,” she told me. “Instead, it’s about non-technical skills — and they are powerful. We need analytical thinking. We need critical thinking. We need the ability to work in a group and individually. We need problem solving skills. And we need communications skills. Those are all parts of a diverse team, that organizations need to solve problems. And in cybersecurity, we’re solving lots of problems every day."
To our 2021 Women in IT Security honorees we thank you, the community thanks you, for the full breadth of your expertise, insight, commitment and inspired thinking.