Could new business requirements post COVID drive boards to reassess their make-up?

For all the challenges COVID-19 has brought to bear for business, it’s also accelerated cybersecurity and digital transformation initiatives. And according to one cybersecurity trailblazer, the pandemic also spurred new demand for board diversity – in terms of race and gender to some degree, but also in expertise.

Simply put, tech is now at the forefront. And boards are recognizing its criticality to future success.

Galina Antova, co-founder and chief business development officer at Claroty, spoke with SC Media about the changing composition of boards: where she sees progress, and where there is still ample room to improve.

A pioneer in industrial cybersecurity who received a shout out from a fellow trailblazer featured in SC Media’s recent Women in IT Security celebration, Antova moved from an IT security position at IBM to do a star-making turn at Siemens as global head of industrial security services. She then joined forces with like-minded business partners in Israel to create operational technology (OT) security company Claroty.

After being on the IT security side for years, most notably at IBM, how did you get hooked on industrial cybersecurity?

In the aftermath of Stuxnet being made public, the world was just waking up to reality that physical systems could be attacked digitally, that they were not air-gapped. Industrial cybersecurity, because of the life cycle of legacy devices, couldn’t build security into products on the fly like we do with IT.

I took my background from general IT and applied that to industrial cybersecurity. But what I also learned by collaborating with very large security companies is no one is really working or thinking exclusively and concretely about how to protect that critical infrastructure, with technology that was purpose built for that domain. So I left my executive position and bought a one-way ticket to Israel, because they’re at the forefront of research for cybersecurity. After some business dating I met my co-founders. And we had a passion for industrial cybersecurity. We started Claroty in 2015. And we were right about industry and how it would change in the next several years. Industrial automation is the backbone of the economy.

How has your position at Claroty given you insight into boards, and how has the pandemic influenced the embrace of diversity?

Industrial cybersecurity is new – and we had the opportunity to not just sell software but to be a trusted adviser to CISOs and, in many cases, directly to boards, to show them how to leverage the power of cybersecurity as a competitive advantage not just a cost center.

I started observing some of the composition of boards. One of the encouraging things I’ve seen, especially since the start of the pandemic, paradoxically, is a lot of boards became very involved in the day-to-day operations of companies and became acutely aware of the problems. Boards, in many ways, immersed themselves into the operations of the business. They saw challenges associated with those companies' [ability] to empower the workforce to be remote, to empower all kinds of digital transformation projects. They understood better, from a first hand experience, why we need to spend money.

How does diversity on boards change the equation?

Obviously gender and race, but also a diversity of background is needed. The vast majority of board members come from finance backgrounds. They know well how to read a balance sheet. But very few of them are former CIOs, CISOs, chief digital officers. But what I’ve seen in the last nine months or so is just a tremendous demand for those types of profiles to become board members. It’s becoming very clear to those companies that are trying to reinvent themselves that in the future every company will be a technology company.

Has the make-up of boards finally started to shift in a meaningful way?

I’ve had exposure to some of those conversations within companies through the work I do. First of all, COVID definitely was a very good catalyst for diversity in general, diversity in thought. When boards now are looking for senior executives in technology, a lot of seats that are being filled are with diverse candidates. Women, people of color. Not just because companies are looking for diversity but because the industry has a lot of those people – women, people of color – and now they’re giving them a platform to advance. One of the amazing things I’m seeing is those groups that have been generally under-represented are really starting to take actions to proactively get on boards. For anyone who has been involved in board selection, there’s no sitting back and waiting for anyone to call you to be on the board of a public company. It takes promoting your profile, talking and networking with a lot of people.

Women have made strides in cybersecurity but are their ranks thinning when it comes to leadership?

There aren’t that many of us. [I got an] undergrad in computer science – and even back then the numbers were not amazing. But they were fairly good numbers. Going through my career, [moving up into more] senior roles, the percentage of us gets smaller and smaller. I started my career with a lot more women, bright women, who are no longer there.

Why is it so difficult for women to move into leadership roles and secure positions on boards?

Women are not that eager to self-promote. I think unfortunately that’s played against us. This is just the name of the game, you have to know people to get on boards, you have to network, you have to get your name out there. The very positive change I’ve seen in the last nine months, and again COVID accelerated that, is we're just catching up.

There are some social constructs we need to get over. We’re just socialized different. If you’re acting in male typical kinds of way, you get labeled as too aggressive or bitchy. It’s not fair. But, unfortunately, a lot of women take that as a true reflection of their behavior rather than something that comes through the lens of gender. So, they scale back their ambition and they scale back their leadership.

Do you still encounter unconscious bias?

I will walk into a room with someone on my team and they will automatically assume I report to the man I walked into the room with. Once we start the conversation and they match the name to the title, and who does what, the perception changes and the dynamic changes. In the first moments, your automatic brain, your reptilian brain, says 'when a woman and man walk into the room, the man is the boss.' Same thing with expertise, I [face that as] a woman in industrial cybersecurity, a field that didn’t exist 10 years, and I helped create that field.

How do we counter that?

For me, it comes down to two really important things. One is exposing unconscious bias. Just talking about it opens the conversation and brings it to the surface. And the second thing is people who are in positions of power, have to let in other member. That is a powerful dynamic in human relationships. The people in power have to support those who are under-represented. This really is not about feeling bad about giving people a chance, there’s just so much research that shows when we have diverse candidates, the outcomes are better for everyone.

California recently enacted a law requiring public companies to meet diversity quotas. That’s raised the hackles of critics. Do you think quotas are helpful or hurtful in the long term?

Europe has had the experience with quotas for women on boards for quite some time. And if you look at the outcomes of what’s coming out of that, it shows very clearly that the performance of those companies and society are benefitting from those quotas. The counter-mechanism is saying, 'let’s make sure we allow candidates who deserve to be on the boards that are under-represented get on the boards and then see how they perform.' I think that is a big mental shift. I think the argument has been that having those quotas for women means the quality will not be as good. This logic is absolutely wrong. There are so many things that make the playing field skewed, that you have to have something that helps balance it up a bit, a little faster. Otherwise we’ll be waiting another 100 years. So this is an accelerator.

I’m very happy that California has this law and I think it’s started to bear fruit. Even beyond California, in states that do not have those laws, [there's recognition of] the benefits of diversity of thought. Companies realize the need for those different perspectives and the fact that there are so many amazing candidates out there that for a number of reasons just aren’t visible.

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