Women Make Strides in Cybersecurity

Five top professionals trace their career achievements in the male-dominated field.

April 2, 2014

Women in Cybersecurity panel

Rhea Siers, Coordinator GW Cybersecurity Initiative; Leslee Belluchie; Deborah Bonanni; Gina Loften; Cheri McGuire; Samara Moore; and Diana Burley discussed how they rose above the ranks and gained top positions in cybersecurity.

By Julyssa Lopez

Samara Moore’s grandfather co-owned an architecture firm when she was a child. From the time she was a toddler up until elementary school, she’d accompany him to work regularly. She made a home at his drafting table, where he would write out math problems for her to solve.

“Most parents would show off their kids doing a dance or some other cute thing, but my grandfather would put a complex problem in front of me and tell everyone, ‘Look! She can do it!’” Ms. Moore remembered.

This early introduction to math eventually led her to a career in information technology and cybersecurity. Today, Ms. Moore is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University and directs critical infrastructure at the National Security Council.

She was one of five professionals who spoke at “Celebrating Women in Cybersecurity,” a panel organized by the George Washington University’s Cybersecurity Initiative and the Global Women’s Institute. The panelists included Leslee Belluchie, CEO and chair of National Security Partners; Deborah Bonanni, vice president for strategic relations at Intelligent Decisions Inc.; Gina Loften, vice president at IBM Global Business Services; and Cheri McGuire, M.B.A. ’99, vice president for global government affairs and cybersecurity policy at Symantec Corporation.

The leaders discussed how they rose above the ranks and gained top positions at various cybersecurity-affiliated companies. Some of the panelists, like Ms. Belluchie and Ms. Loften, started out in STEM-focused disciplines like mechanical and electrical engineering. Ms. Belluchie now leads her own cybersecurity company, while Ms. Loften is in charge of applying IBM’s Watson supercomputer capabilities to industries.

Others described more “circuitous” routes into their current jobs. Ms. McGuire, for example, began her career on Capitol Hill. She considered going to law school before finally deciding to join GW’s School of Business M.B.A. program. She later worked at Booz Allen Hamilton in a role that combined her public policy background with telecommunications. Following 9/11, Ms. McGuire was required to support operational missions and national preparedness. She gained broad expertise in critical infrastructure protection, cybersecurity, data integrity, and global public policy for both industry and government.

“Always be open, number one, to opportunity and, number two, to everyone around you. Don’t ever think that a situation you are put in is not an opportunity to learn from,” she said. “I was a sponge, and what happened is that I got a lot of opportunities to continue to improve myself and perform.”

Ms. Bonanni, who also came from a humanities-focused background, stressed the importance of bringing multiple perspectives into the technology field, noting that the strength of GW’s Cybersecurity Initiative is its interdisciplinary focus.

“As a country, as a nation and as a liberal arts major, it’s important we not lose that intersection,” Ms. Bonanni said. “That might also be interesting to women, perhaps as a way to get them hooked on some of the STEM disciplines.”

Following each panelist’s presentation, Associate Professor of Human and Organizational Learning Diana Burley shared her own story. As a student at Carnegie Mellon University, she recalled having a moment where she realized she was thinking differently than others. She was in class, doing a post-mortem on a system that had failed. Dr. Burley saw the obvious flaw, but didn’t understand why her classmates couldn’t pinpoint it. Yet, she didn’t speak up.

“I thought, ‘I must be thinking wrong,’ ” she said.

It wasn’t until a professor called on her that she shared her thoughts with the class and explained what no one had been able to figure out.

“I realized being different was an asset to designing systems and to thinking about technology… Having a unique perspective was valuable, and what has occurred to me as I’ve listened to every single one of our panelists speak today is that this is what they’re talking about: Having a unique perspective that brings a new idea into the room, which allows us to move forward,”  Dr. Burley said.

Dr. Burley asked the panelists to describe what can be done to attract more women into the field.

Ms. Bonanni said when she worked at the National Security Agency, she once participated in a discussion with young female cybersecurity professionals, who continually expressed concern over balancing their personal life and their jobs. Women need role models who can manage both, Ms. Bonanni said.

“We were sharing how we were dealing with these life struggles we all have, and they loved that. I think it was a combination of seeing real women in real jobs, seeing it applied in a real environment and then being able to have those candid conversations about how to navigate life,” she said.

GW Cybersecurity Initiative Coordinator Rhea Siers closed the event, encouraging attendees and the greater university community to submit "ideas on how to foster the multidisciplinary collaborative efforts that are necessary to make headway in this challenging area of education, research and policy."