Bridging the Gender Gap in Cybersecurity with Louise Marie Hurel and Angela Matlapeng

Women are underrepresented in the field of cybersecurity. ITU’s Women in Cyber mentorship programme, organized together with the EQUALS Global Partnership and the Forum for Incident Response Teams (FIRST), aims to help bridge the gap. In this episode of the UNconnected, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau speaks with Louise Marie Hurel and Angela Matlapeng, who participated as a mentor and mentee respectively, in the programme. They discuss the challenges and opportunities for women in cyber, and the way forward for women to co-create and lead solutions in this field.

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Disclaimer: The following transcript is machine-generated and has been slightly edited for clarity and readability.

Doreen Bogdan-Martin:

Is this thing on? Can you hear me?


Yes, we can loud and clear. Thank you. Welcome to the latest episode of the UNconnected, a podcast series about information and communication technologies and development with Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau.

Doreen Bogdan-Martin:

On International Women's Day in March earlier this year, ITU kicked off a mentorship programme for Women in Cybersecurity together with the EQUALS Global Partnership to bridge the gender digital divide, and the Forum for Incident Response Teams known as FIRST.

Did you know that women make up only 24% of the cybersecurity workforce? Cybersecurity is a field that is also suffering from a skills gap as global demand for cybersecurity professionals continues to outpace the supply. The ‘Women in Cyber’ programme aims to close that gap and make sure that women are better represented in a field where their participation is absolutely crucial. Women need to bring their views and their voices to play a role in designing cybersecurity solutions that affect us all. In the first edition, we have matched 70 mentees from the Arab states and in the African regions with mentors from across the globe. Through a combination of mentorship and skills training, the goal is to create a pipeline of accomplished women in cybersecurity.

Here with me today are two absolutely brilliant women who took part in this programme.

We have Angela Matlapeng and we have Louise Marie Hurel, and I'm so glad to have them both with us today. Angela and Louise, do you want to introduce yourself? Angela, you first.

Angela Matlapeng:

Thank you, Doreen, for having us. It's an absolute pleasure to firstly be part of this ‘Women in Cybersecurity’ programme and to have the opportunity to discuss the lessons learned from this. I'm very happy to be here. Thank you.

Doreen Bogdan-Martin:

Excellent, Thank you. Louise, Would you like to introduce yourself? Over to you.

Louise Marie Hurel:

Absolutely. Hi Doreen and Angela. It's so nice to be in this space with both of you and to have this conversation. I think we're all women working in cybersecurity. It's really nice to share experiences here. And just by way of introduction, I am a special policy advisor for ‘Igarape’ Institute's digital security programme. Igarape is a think and do tank focused on multi-dimensional security issues such as climate change, public security, cyber and digital security. I am a part of Igarape and have been spearheading the programme on digital security. I am also a PhD researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Department of Media Communications, where I have been researching the politics of cyber incident response. Throughout these past years, and my PhD projects, also very much the reflection of that, I have been working across different communities, both technical, with technical expertise and policy expertise. I am also a part of different advisory boards, such as the Global Forum on Cyber Expertise, which is a multi-stakeholder platform for cyber capacity building. I'm really thrilled to be here, after this time of the mentorship programme, and to just have this conversation. So thanks a lot for having me here.

Doreen Bogdan-Martin:

Excellent. Well, thanks to you. We're excited to have you both here to talk more about your experiences. As I was mentioning, women make up only 24% of the global cybersecurity workforce and this ‘Women in Cyber’ programme is really focused on changing that picture.

So, Angela, maybe starting first with you. What do you feel are your most concrete takeaways from this programme? Now that you've participated in the programme; what would be the next steps that you'd like to take and what would you like to see from us as well?

Angela Matlapeng:

Thanks Doreen. Through the programme, I acquired both my technical and soft skills and a little bit of counselling from women who were keynote speakers, through the mentorship cycles, but I believe the key component of this mentorship was networking.

For instance, I had a very supportive [inaudible] who created a tailormade tutorial just to teach me how to implement DNS security. As it is, I value networking because I had the opportunity to collaborate with core mentees of ‘Cyber Security Awareness programme’ that we designed and introduced in the university that she works in.  During the month of cyber security, which is October, the month of awareness, we managed to have a few webinars, and she also managed to create some fishing, exercises for her team. That has been the highlight of this programme, being able to connect with women who I relate with.  In my next steps, as one of the envoys of the programme, I would just like to encourage more women, especially from my country, and the region to join in, as this has been very beneficial.

I'd like to talk more about the programme and its benefits whenever I get the time to. I've been fortunate enough to sit in policymaking platforms and bodies.

I believe that I will not cease to stop speaking about women, ICT and cyber in general, until there's actually change that happens, I also hope to come back one day and be a mentor, just to help other women, especially those new to the career, to find a footing. I think through the mentorship, I would have a lovely opportunity to sharpen my skills as a mentor, because I also don't stop learning in this very dynamic space. So that's it for me. Thank you.

Doreen Bogdan-Martin:

Thank you so much, Angela. Excellent.

Louise, before you became a mentor yourself, were there any particular mentors or perhaps female role models that inspired you? And what do you aim to convey to your mentees? Over to you.

Louise Marie Hurel:

Thanks Doreen. Yeah, that's a really great question.

I'd like to just start out and first stress how important it is for us to have a group of people, especially women, that really can inspire us, a career in cybersecurity, and I can say that from a policy perspective, is far from being a straightforward path. So having mentors and people that can serve as role models or just inspire you can be a really nice way of visualizing possible futures and thinking creatively of what a career in cybersecurity actually means.

We've talked about, different statistics around women being part of the cybersecurity workforce. I do think that there are many pathways and we can build, a resilient cybersecurity workforce by having these kinds of practices. I myself come from an international relations/sociology/media and communications background, which is, quite a mix. I've always been engaged in policy environments, but mostly because at the start of my career, these things were quite hard to access in academic discussions in Brazil, which is where I originally come from. The policy spaces and think-tank environments were kind of the entry point in a still nascent space back then.

So interestingly enough, when looking back most of my references in the fields were women, and still are women that are in both sides, or that can transition in both fields. I saw women that went from a policy environment, were working a lot with academia, and they were able to communicate across different communities. So just to name a few, because I think we need to really recognize the amazing women out there: Madeline Carr, who is a professor over at UCL, Laura DeNardis, who is over at American University. So many women that shared this journey with me across different stages of my life, from engaging in Internet Governance, and now in different advisory boards and different leadership positions. I think being able to follow that progress of different women you also build your career in parallel to, and see how they go towards their different paths, is really amazing. I think you are never alone in your journey of discovering where you want to land in cybersecurity, how to see which kind of futures are possible for you, be it in a more technical side or be at a more policy advocacy side, which is where I'm at and academia as well.

What I really want to convey to my mentees, whenever we got together throughout these past few months and built this relationship, was to let them know, don't be afraid to expose yourself to other communities. Even though you might be speaking from a very particular standpoint of an engineer or working in information security, or even doing incident response, to be able to communicate with other women and other people in other stakeholder groups allows you to kind of share the relevance of your work and your expertise in a very meaningful way and build policies and even bring more sensibility to the development of cybersecurity that is  reflective of these different types of expertise. This is definitely the key takeaway, or things that I normally kind of get back to my mentees, because sometimes we have the idea that a career is a straight line. Definitely when it comes to cybersecurity and thinking female role models, we see these multiple pathways and being inspired is just another way of exposing yourself to a very diverse and emergent fields. So, I'm really excited whenever we get to talk about this. Definitely, it's a key message whenever we have a chat.

Doreen Bogdan-Martin:

Excellent, thank you. Those are great messages that you've conveyed to your mentees. I couldn't agree with you more, on your point about careers, not being necessarily a straight line, my career paths certainly was not a straight line. Thanks for that. So, turning to both of you, as I mentioned, the cybersecurity field, is known to be suffering from this massive skills shortage as organizations and governments are struggling to encourage new talent into the sector and to meet the growing workforce demands.

What would be your advice to women considering this field or entering into the cybersecurity fields and how can we support them? Then I guess the last part of that is who would be the actors that would be best placed to provide that support? So, Angela, let’s start with you, maybe starting first with the advice.

Angela Matlapeng:

Thanks again Doreen, so cybersecurity is a great dynamic and diverse space, as Louise has already mentioned, and I personally think that if anyone is built to prosper in this career, it is women because women are patient, analytical problem solvers, which means they can handle the technical aspects of cybersecurity. They are also naturally impactful, making them very perfect to handle crises, as they would often communicate well, and make sure it's in a manner that doesn't even cause panic or more harm. Women are also educators, which makes them excel, when it comes to awareness. I feel like the environment is likely to impel us, as women are not very retained within the ICT and cyberspace in general.

My advice would just be prepared to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, because where there's vulnerability is where you actually grow. If you find a space that's not very conducive, the fact that you've been there, it means that you're really doing it. So, you're no longer saying ‘yes, you can do it’, because you're in being in the space. So just retain an open mind. Whatever you are, just be a good one.

In terms of how we can support women, I think mentorship is imperative as we have seen clearly through the ‘Women in Cybersecurity’ mentorship by ITU. I also think employers must uncover bias in terms of recruiting and interviewing, because women can negatively be impacted by that, if possible, implement counters for equal hire.

I feel that leaders should develop those skills that need to have intrusive conversations so that women can be free to express themselves in these spaces. I really think all these efforts combined can attract and retain women in cybersecurity.

As for the key actors, I would just like to start with caregivers and parents. I believe that if our parents raised the boy child differently to accommodate the girl child, we would not even have programmes designed for women to enable them to stand up for themselves because then we will be equals; both men and women in the industry and government which is the primary policymaker.

If it starts from the top, and you have a government that supports women, and it's very decisive and intentional about it then I believe everyone can follow suit. Employers as well as fellow women. Sheryl Sandberg says in the book, ‘Lean In’ that “Successful women are unlikeable and they are especially resented by other women”.  So as women, if we come together and support each other, be each other's opportunities and speak up for one another when we have the opportunity to, I think all these can really help a great deal to have more women going to the cybersecurity career. Thank you.

Doreen Bogdan-Martin:

Excellent, thank you, Angela. Louise, over to you for the same questions. Let's get your take on this.

Louise Marie Hurel:

Sure. Angela has already made so many amazing points, I would just take a step, in my previous reflection. I was talking about how the path might not be clear. So, I think one thing to keep in mind in that progress and in that pathway, is really not to give up. Even if you're not working specifically in cybersecurity.

Now, there might be something about the progress or the process of getting there, that is really meaningful, and get people that can mentor you, but these people might not be cybersecurity related people, sometimes it's family members, its friends, it's people that really get what it means to go through a particular pathway. I come from Internet governance, and I've landed in cybersecurity because I was always interested in security, but I came through that particular field. So many other people come from different backgrounds and I think that is the first thing that I would say in terms of advice of entry into the cybersecurity field. Reach out in more practical terms, reach out on LinkedIn, make a list of conferences that these women attend to map your interests, set your goals.

If you don't know your goals, yet, that's totally fine. Expose yourself to different environments. I think this is something that we discussed a lot throughout the mentorship programme. I think just being very strategic about the spaces that you would like to be part of, and also to see where these women have been already and where can you go? Or is there a gap there, that we need to think more creatively of what kinds of mechanisms we need to develop in order to respond to emerging threats. So not just about, women strengthening women in the workplace but I think it's also about this creativeness of: Do we need new governance models? Do we need to think more creatively of how our policies are being devised? Are they being inclusive enough? Are they being sensitive to the gendered dynamics of cybersecurity?

The second element, that I would bring in terms of women entering into the workforce, is kind of that fine balance of knowing where you've come from and learning, but also owning it, I think, sometimes, it's very hard to own our own stance, because it is a very evolving field. But there is a certain moment where you just need to kind of own up and say, “Well, I've done this, I've come through all of this process, and now I'm in this position”, or just be clearer and position yourself in your workspace, in your academic life. There are very gendered dynamics to this positioning. I think we shouldn't underestimate the role that can take and just women being vocal in every space that they occupy, especially in a field that's really male dominated, on the technical side, I feel it's even more from a policy perspective, whenever we're talking about military affairs or as offensive cyber capabilities. For example, there is a growing male dominated field that comes from military and strategic affairs. Now, how do we navigate that, and we need to own it. I've read and I've been in policy spaces and there's a certain moment that you just need to position yourself and not be afraid of that.

The final thing that I would say is let's take stock. What can we do? I think the boundaries between mentor and mentee, they're very fluid. So, whenever you have an opportunity, you have experience that you can share with others. What can you do now that you've been through this experience? Let's say the mentorship programme or just being in a meeting, What can you do to make it easier for other women to join? So in my case, it was so hard to engage in cybersecurity and policy spaces at the start of my career, that and also to research this from the place that I was researching right now over at ‘Igarape’ , we've devised this cybersecurity portal focused in Brazil, to make it easier for other people, be it women or men, different genders, to just access the debate on cybersecurity, to have access to documents, policies that have already been devised. So how can we pay it forward as women to women, but also to the broader field, to diversify it.

Lastly, and not to extend myself, I would say that on the point of diversity, we really need to think of diversity, not as, ticking the box of HR or something that gets lost in statistical reports or feeds into that. But we should understand that we need women from different ethnic, racial, regional backgrounds, to really not necessarily just match a diversity criterion, but to ultimately think that while doing so, and in doing so, we have a better perspective of the threat landscape. It is impossible for us to think about cybersecurity and not think about the gender dynamics, the racial dynamics that are in place, whenever we talk about that. That is having a myopic understanding of what are the key threats there, and we're producing knowledge that is ultimately biased and policies that are biased as well in that sense. How can we integrate that into the different fields of cybersecurity? Definitely, these are the points that I would like to raise in terms of, how to think about getting into the sector, what are the key points there and who gets to implement and support. I think us, whenever we have an opportunity, we can pay it forward, but there's also the government’s role to play not only in ensuring that educational policies are more inclusive of both the policy and technical dimensions of cybersecurity, but also the gender dynamics.

Canada has been doing really great work on that, for example, in international spaces and negotiations. UNIDIR has been doing really great work and thinking about gender and cybersecurity, private companies as well. I think it's another aspect of not just having a group of women within a particular company, but making sure that you have the space for them to take on leadership roles. I think these are the two main aspects that I would like to bring here.

Doreen Bogdan-Martin:

Excellent. Thank you so much for that. Louise and Angela, I'm really pleased that you have both found this programme. Useful both as a mentor as well as a mentee, you've highlighted the networking opportunities that were provided, the tailored focus and in some of the sessions, the importance of collaboration, and the different learnings that you both had as mentors and mentees. We have seen from both of you in terms of how we fix this and how we get more women in cyber. It's not a box ticking exercise, which I think is so important. We do need women from different backgrounds, as Louise just highlighted, especially if we want to understand the different threat landscapes. But we do need to be working with governments, which have a key role to play as well as industry. As Angela said, parents and caregivers also have a key role in inspiring girls, young women to consider fields such as cybersecurity.

I would say for me some of your great and encouraging messages, are “Don't be afraid. Don't give up. Don't stop. Be prepared to be uncomfortable”. I think that's a good one. ‘’It's not easy. We've got to be strong. We have to stick together. We have to have an open mind and also own it. Be vocal.’’ I think these are terrific messages and great takeaways that will inspire other women and girls to think about fields like this.

I'd like to ask you both or sort of signature question, that is – what was your first mobile device and how did it change your life? Angela, maybe you can answer that first please.

Angela Matlapeng:

I owned a Samsung 250. It was very stylish, because it could slide up and down. I used it a little bit for research even though internet wasn't quite a thing during my time of studying. So, it would help me sort of connect with people because that's when Facebook came into play. It just made me feel good to have a phone like that, to take pictures. But mostly, I would say, to keep in touch with people. Yeah, I would make friends in different countries and all those things and just be able to socialize.

Doreen Bogdan-Martin:

Terrific, thank you, Angela. Louise, what was yours?

Louise Marie Hurel:

I was trying to remember; I think it was a Motorola. It was exactly when the big mobile phones were starting to shrink a little. It was great. It was great, starting to send SMS. I just remember that being connected with other people and doing so in a very nice way. I also remember, having this huge computer at home, and just being able to really create, in that space, was really important. I see that today, especially with younger folks, just being able to create in the online world is so important and expressing that in new and amazing ways. So yeah, that was my experience. It took me a while to get it. It was good, that I was second in replying to that question, because I was trying to recall, what was my first device? And yeah, I would say it was Motorola.

Doreen Bogdan-Martin:

That's great. Thank you. Well, Louise and Angela, this brings us to the end of our podcast.

I want to thank you both so much for really sharing your stories, your experiences, and for motivating and inspiring us. We will be continuing with our ‘Women in Cyber’ programme. So, look forward to continued support. Angela, I look forward to having you back soon as a mentor.

Thank you both. Stay safe. Stay well. Take care. Thank you.