#BreakTheBias: Women in Cybersecurity

 |   Microsoft Malaysia

This year’s International Women’s Day is themed #BreaktheBias – shining a spotlight on valuing and celebrating individual differences. While more have come to embrace individuality, the notion that certain roles may be more suited for a specific gender is a hurdle that continues to exist.

In Deloitte’s 2022 Predictions report, it is stated that the tech industry will likely continue to close the gender gap. Large global tech firms, on average, will reach nearly 33%  of overall female representation in their workforces in 2022.

However, in a 2018 report by (ISC)2 Foundation found that the number appears to be lower in cybersecurity, with only 24% of the overall cybersecurity workforce comprised of women. This highlights the critical need for more diverse participation to help address the digital world’s ever-evolving cybersecurity challenges.

At Microsoft, we embrace our responsibility to make the cyberspace a safer place and we believe in the power of engaging many different perspectives – not only among our leadership teams and employees, but as an extension, among our partners and customers too. To do so, we work with organizations that are equally passionate about protecting the cyberspace, including government agencies, specialist centers and industry players.

In celebration of this year’s International Women’s Day, we got the chance to speak to three prominent women in cybersecurity roles in Malaysia, where they shared their insights and stories of how they pursued their passion in the field, breaking barriers, and biases along the way.

They are: Raja Azrina Binti Raja Othman, Chief Information Security Officer of Telekom Malaysia, Dr. Maslina Bt. Daud, Senior Vice President of Cyber Security Proactive Services Division at CyberSecurity Malaysia, and Azleyna Ariffin, Principal Assistant Director (Secondment) of Cyber Legal Integration Division at National Cyber Security Agency (NACSA).

Can you tell us about how you landed your current role in cybersecurity?

Dr. Maslina: To be frank, this was not by choice but it all just happened at the right time. I have a degree in computer science and this made me develop a habit of keeping a lookout for emerging cyber threats, so I naturally landed a career working on the frontlines of the cyber ecosystem. As CyberSecurity Malaysia works with various stakeholders, I have had the opportunity to develop cybersecurity strategies for different players and I do believe this purpose keeps me going on!

Raja Azrina: My career in cybersecurity started out purely out of curiosity but over time, I found myself getting more invested in this field and started doing my own research from available resources. I remember how I used to spend hours and hours after work tinkering on smaller security projects. The turning point of my career came when I was offered an opportunity to be part of a cyber incident response team (MyCERT).

Though I must say, it has been 25 years now. What made me stay in this field was the larger purpose, to have played a part in enabling Malaysia to thrive in this age of digitalization.” – Raja Azrina Binti Raja Othman, Telekom Malaysia

Azleyna: Like Dr. Maslina, I also graduated with a degree in computer science and my entire career has always been – in one way or another – relevant to cybersecurity. It certainly hasn’t been an easy journey, but I have also been very fortunate, from taking on freelance projects on information security, to being offered opportunities to diversify my exposure. All that experience has made me who I am today.

What is your biggest motivation to continue pursuing a career in cybersecurity?

I have always held onto one goal since I first started working and that is to make sure that the knowledge I have and work I do will also benefit others.” – Azleyna Ariffin, NACSA

Azleyna: Alhamdullilah, I am now the Chairman of the Malaysian Working Group on Information Security Management Systems. Together with other local experts, we work as a team and become the voice representing Malaysia in projects that deal with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) on information security. Being entrusted with this responsibility is one of my biggest achievements and motivation.

By being a part of the national cybersecurity specialist agency, we are duty-bound to safeguard the online security of Malaysians, from larger organizations to smaller businesses to your average internet user at home. This is not an easy task but knowing I am contributing to my country and fellow Malaysians is my greatest motivation.” – Dr. Maslina Bt. Daud, CyberSecurity Malaysia

More women have participated and taken an interest in cybersecurity in recent years. Why do you think so?

Dr. Maslina: For one, the rising awareness about cybersecurity definitely plays a part. Cybersecurity is a broad field and there are so many elements to it, not only the technical aspect which most people know of. Times have changed and I am happy to see more women taking on cybersecurity jobs. In the past, people tend to associate tech jobs with men, but now more are realizing that is not the case so there’s an increase in confidence for women participation, gradually in management and executive levels too.

Azleyna: I agree with Dr. Maslina, and I believe that institutions providing cybersecurity courses and training programs have helped too! The pandemic drove a change in our mindsets to being equipped for a better shot at employability. Together with the availability of upskilling and reskilling programs, I believe more people would grab onto these opportunities and women are no exception. Speaking from my personal experience, having a female role model is also a factor to consider.

Witnessing the success of another female who was not afraid to challenge the boundaries and succeeded in doing so, certainly gives me encouragement.” – Azleyna Ariffin, NACSA

Raja Azrina: MyCERT in 1997 started with a team of five, in which four were female. However, in AusCERT 2007 Conference in Brisbane, with over a hundred speakers, they announced that I was the only female speaker. We do have women in cybersecurity, perhaps not as many to begin with, and along the way, fewer choose to remain in this field. Even if they do, they were not yet in the forefront.  Over the last decade, we have seen more women entering this field and rise to the forefront. Like Azleyna said, one of the contributors to this is the availability of more cybersecurity-related courses locally at tertiary level. We are also seeing more female pioneers in the field, taking leading roles.

What advice can you share with other women out there who are at crossroads in their career or are interested in pursuing cybersecurity?

Raja Azrina: As the saying goes, ‘the hands that rock the cradle rules the world’. This doesn’t portray just motherhood but reflects grit – women can and should pursue any career path they desire. Also, surround yourself with people who will genuinely support the pursuit of your goals.

Some of us may take longer than others, but with persistence, you will find your path to get there.” – Raja Azrina Binti Raja Othman, Telekom Malaysia

Dr. Maslina: If you are interested in pursuing a career in cybersecurity, you need to be passionate about this field – but that’s not all. Technology advances so rapidly, so you must keep abreast and stay focused to do well in this field.

Azleyna: For me, I believe that knowledge is power and the key to success. I would also encourage women to pick up new skills – look into trainings offered at your workplace or in fact, take the initiative to sign up for a seminar or conference of your preferred topic. Also, and this is very important to take note of – stay positive. Most, if not all of us have fallen into career slumps at one point or another, but what’s crucial is that we don’t give up and get back up!

Lastly, what does ‘Break the Bias’ mean to you or what do you have to say about it?

Raja Azrina: It is about having a level playing field, challenging the boundaries, and be rewarded equally.

Azleyna: For everyone out there, remember that each and every one of us are unique in our own ways, regardless of our backgrounds.

Dr. Maslina: I believe, the key is trust. Many perceive men to perform better than women in a technical field and as cybersecurity is considered a technical field, the perception remains. However, that’s not the case. It is high time that women gain the trust and recognition that we deserve.