Never let them see you sweat: Advice from a woman in security
Never let them see you sweat: Advice from a woman in security

I'm not going to tell you that I've never heard troubling remarks throughout my career directed at me simply because I'm a woman. I will tell you, however, that I've never missed an opportunity to grow in my career because of my gender. In fact, I think it has fueled my growth.

As a woman who has worked in the male-dominated field of incident response for the past 15 years, I understand how working in the security field can be a challenge for women. However, there are a few things I've learned along the way that helped me succeed in my career.

Let credibility rule – First and foremost, people will notice you're a woman. People may initially try to judge you based on how you look, but don't give them a reason to. Instead, force them to focus on your credibility and what you've accomplished – not your appearance.

Understanding that some people are going to make assumptions about you allows you to mentally prepare. Focus on what you're there for: to do your job exceptionally well, to the point that the only thing people will remember is just how incredibly competent you are.  

Never let them see you sweat – We often hear negative comments about how emotional women are. Sure, we have emotions, but I learned early on that it's all about how you manage emotion in the workplace.

I was a softball pitcher for many years while growing up. Early in my pitching career, my emotions would get the best of me and I'd be known to react negatively if an umpire made a call I didn't like, or I gave up hits that lost us a game. The problem was, my outbursts weren't helping me or my team. That's when my father taught me a simple, but important lesson: Never let them see you sweat. You can get frustrated, but always maintain the upper hand by not showing it. I believe that lesson has helped me succeed in my career in incident response.

In incident response, we work in extremely tense environments. Clients are experiencing crises where they're worried about losing intellectual property or money, or about losing their job because of the data breach.

In these high-stress environments, I've learned that it's important to maintain a calm presence and focus on how we will help get through the situation. This doesn't mean that I'm not stressed myself – rather I've just actively worked on controlling how I show emotion in these situations. 

Take calculated risks – I learned early in my career that when you take risks, you may have to spend time feeling uncomfortable. You're not always going to feel prepared for the challenge you've just taken on, but that's not necessarily bad. It helps you learn and hone skills you didn't know you had.

When I left my first job as a special agent in the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations to join a start-up in the private sector, people warned me it was a big risk. But, I took the chance because I knew I'd learn a lot. By accepting the challenge, I advanced in my career and took on the opportunity to make an impact responding to some of the largest data breaches of all time.

Ultimately, use every experience as a learning opportunity. Never underestimate yourself and the value you bring to your team and your role. Work hard, ask questions, and be confident in the things you do know. And for the things you don't know, just keep learning.


Wendi Whitmore heads up IBM's Incident Response, Intelligence and Forensics teams. She has held prominent roles at CrowdStrike, Mandiant, and was a special agent at the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations.