Saltanat Mashirova works out of a lab in Dubai, where she is a cybersecurity engineer for Honeywell. Before that, she provided on site cybersecurity assessment services to oil and gas plants, even changing into personal protective equipment. (Photo credit: Saltanat Mashirova)

The first thing Saltanat Mashirova does when she gets a new job is prove herself to her new male colleagues.

In her world, efforts to bring more women into the security field are still widely viewed with suspicion by a male-dominated field, and those championing diversity are often derided as fame-seeking celebrities who have advanced their careers without the underlying expertise.

While she is a decorated cybersecurity engineer who graduated with honors from the University of California Irvine on a presidential scholarship, she’s also a woman working in IT security in a part of the world where they are often still judged by their ability to find husbands, start families and conform to traditional gender roles.

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“I always have to prove how good I am when I go to a new place. Usually where I work, 90% are men, so I always have to prove first how good I am, because right now we have bias” against women in cybersecurity, said Mashirova.

Mashirova works out of a lab in Dubai, where she is a cybersecurity engineer and architect for Honeywell. Before that, she provided on site cybersecurity assessment services to oil and gas plants, even changing into personal protective equipment. The experience was a reminder that she was breaking barriers around gender, noting that females almost never wear PPE and “you hardly find accommodation for women there.”

She is the president of the only Kazakhstan chapter of the Information Systems Audit and Control Association, where she’s developed community education initiatives around IT security, organizing meetups, webinars and initiatives to find cybersecurity internships for female university students.

When she started her cybersecurity career, Marishova struggled to find local mentors. As she established herself, she learned that other parts of the world like Europe and the U.S. had developed networks of women to guide and support the next generation of IT security leaders.

She began receiving messages from young girls in Kazakhstan and elsewhere asking for guidance in their career development. That spurred her to create the first and only Women in Cybersecurity branch in Kazakhstan, where young girls are often pressured to put their family and home obligations ahead of career ambitions.

“I started getting a lot of questions from girls who contacted me, asking: ‘Please, could you give us advice on which road we should take in cybersecurity? We hear that it is very hard, especially [because] women usually get married and have kids,’” she recalled. “In cybersecurity, it’s hard to manage a family and work because when you get a degree, it doesn’t mean you stop learning. In cybersecurity you always learn, so that’s why I established this community in order to help girls, to motivate and to share knowledge.”