WiCyS 2017: Inspiring a Sense of Community Among Women in Cybersecurity

Imagine the scene: 700 women, 100 men, all gathered for the common purpose of empowering the women of the cybersecurity workforce. This was the scene as I entered the Tucson Ballroom at the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort and Spa in Tucson, Arizona, on the morning of March 31, 2017, where we were gathered for the fourth annual Women in Cybersecurity Conference (WiCyS).

Images for Heather Ricciuto's 4/12 article

This year, the conference brought together 800 attendees from academia, research, government agencies and industry from March 31 to April 1.

The Excitement

The halls were abuzz with excitement as attendees anxiously awaited the opening of the doors to the ballroom. Entering the room, the energy was tangible. This was my second year at this conference, and I once again found it incredibly inspiring to see the gender imbalance tipped in favor of the female population. In an industry with only 11 percent female representation, being seated in a room that’s nearly 90 percent women — all with a passion for cybersecurity — is a rare opportunity.

Moreover, the energy and talent I observed among the students in attendance was positively astounding, not to mention encouraging. With this level of attendance, I see hope for filling the female pipeline and reducing the cybersecurity skills gap.

The Inspiration

I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with the founder and co-chair of the conference, Dr. Ambareen Siraj, an associate professor in computer science at Tennessee Technological University. When I asked Siraj what inspired her to start WiCyS in the first place, her reply was nothing short of inspiring.

“I love this field, and I know there are so many opportunities in the field for all (with different demographics, interest and skill level). Seeing low representation of women in professional meetings, in classrooms, in speaker line-ups, etc., got me started with WiCyS. I wanted to build a community for women where they can ‘see’ each other, get inspired, engaged [and] informed by each other and not feel isolated anymore, ” Siraj explained.

I must say, Siraj has certainly succeeded in building a real sense of community among women in cybersecurity. I asked several attendees what they enjoyed most about the conference, and the responses clearly had a common theme. Attendees used words like “comradery,” “community” and “belonging.” Personally, I experienced an overwhelming feeling that I had found my “tribe.”

Authenticity Above Authority

Speakers at the conference ranged from undergraduate students to leaders of global enterprises such as IBM, yet the passion was obvious among all attendees. The authenticity and transparency of knowledgeable women in cybersecurity was particularly refreshing. Allow me to share some of the best advice I captured from senior leaders throughout the conference:

  • Be fearless! If you’re interested in cybersecurity, just start! We all started somewhere.
  • Be the person who breaks down barriers for others.
  • We all suffer from impostor syndrome at one time or another. Don’t let it break you.
  • Getting to a gender balance of 50/50 in cybersecurity isn’t just a numbers game; it’s about diversity of thought.
  • While we all need mentors, it is equally important to have a sponsor. The two play very different roles.

IBM Security’s own Wendi Whitmore took the stage as the dinner keynote speaker on Friday evening. Wendi shared key strategies for building a career in cybersecurity, which included taking calculated risks. Wendi emphasized the need to increase the pipeline on the front end and build awareness in elementary and middle school so that kids of all ages, genders and ethnicities know that opportunities in cybersecurity exist. Finally, for women already in the field and wanting to advance their careers, Wendi had one big piece of advice: Make your own luck!

Images for Heather Ricciuto's 4/12 article

To hear how Wendi learned how to be a leader in cybersecurity, listen to The CyberWire Daily Podcast from April 6, 2017.

The Road Ahead for WiCyS

Knowing how much work it is to pull this annual conference full of workshops, networking socials, lightning talks, panels, a poster competition, career fair, and several highly regarded keynote and distinguished speakers, I asked Siraj what motivates her to hold this event year after year.

“It is more work than you can imagine for a professor who has 10 other things to do. With a community of support, we keep doing this because WiCyS is having an impact in various ways in the careers and lives of women who want to empower themselves and make a difference,” she said.

If you missed WiCyS 2017, don’t worry! Mark your calendars now for 2018 event, which will be held March 24 to 26, 2018, in Chicago, and will be hosted by Illinois Institute of Technology. See you there!

Heather Ricciuto

Security Academic Initiative Leader, IBM

Heather Ricciuto is Global Leader of IBM Security’s Academic Initiative, partnering with educational and research...