A common barrier for women in STEM is that they feel they need to strive for perfection in order to progress. Many women will wait until they feel 100 percent qualified before taking on new responsibilities or considering a new role. For women who feel this pressure, my advice is: “good is often good enough.” Reflect on your goals and develop a plan of action to achieve them. If there are opportunities for you to step up and lead, take them. You don’t have to wait until you are 100 percent ready to make a difference. You’ll never make a difference if you don’t try.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Eman El-Sheikh, Director of the Center for Cybersecurity and Professor of Computer Science at the University of West Florida. Eman has extensive expertise in cybersecurity education, research and workforce development and received several awards related to cybersecurity education and diversity. She leads UWF’s efforts as the NSA/DHS National Center of Academic Excellence Regional Resource Center for the Southeast U.S. and received several grants to enhance cybersecurity education and training for K12, college and non-traditional students. She teaches and conducts research related to the development and evaluation of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning for cybersecurity. Eman has published several books, including most recently, Computer and Network Security Essentials by Springer Publishing, over 70 peer-reviewed articles and given over 100 presentations and invited talks.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve always been interested in solving complex problems and mentoring students, and that’s what led me to higher education. I knew it would give me the opportunity to advance today’s best practices, and importantly, would give me the opportunity to inspire future generations.
What attracted me to cybersecurity specifically was realizing the need for skilled professionals in the field not only in the United States, but across the globe. Recent estimates show that by 2021, we will have over 3.5 million unfilled cybersecurity jobs globally, and those estimates are only continuing to increase. There is a massive opportunity to make a difference by solving this problem at the national and global level.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
At the University of West Florida, one of our main goals is to become a leader in cybersecurity education and workforce development. We first achieved this goal in 2016 when we were designated as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education by the National Security Agency and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Almost immediately after, we were given even more responsibility when we were named the National Centers of Academic Excellence Cybersecurity Regional Resource Center for the Southeastern region of the United States by the National Security Agency.
This was truly a surprising moment and a huge honor to be recognized for the work we were doing to serve the greater good of the national security community.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I spent too much time focusing on details, which took valuable time away from important work that needed to be done. I learned to always keep the big picture in mind and focus on the priorities.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes the Center for Cybersecurity at the University of West Florida stand out is our outward focus and keen interest in making a difference. While we are grounded in driving advancement in cybersecurity across the academic department of the university, we are using an approach that allows us to share what we are doing, disseminate best practices and develop scalable models that can help the community overall.
We are constantly asking ourselves, how do we help Florida, and our country at large, advance national security?
One of the ways we’ve answered this within the local community is through our Cybersecurity Ambassadors program. The program identifies passionate UWF students and provides them with professional and leadership development opportunities, including the ability to visit schools and community organizations to enhance cybersecurity awareness and interest, particularly among underrepresented populations.
Our role as the Cybersecurity Centers of Academic Excellence hub for the Southeastern region of the United States has allowed us to share the work we’ve done through our Ambassadors program with peers across the region and the entire nation, so that similar programs can be implemented elsewhere.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
One of our major focuses right now, and something I’m very excited about, is our Cybersecurity for All® program — what we envision as the future of cybersecurity education and training. It’s an adaptive, customizable program that provides workforce development to individuals and organizations. It can be broken into short courses and tailored to each organization’s needs, and blends higher education principles including problem solving, critical thinking and team building, with hands-on skills development to address the latest cyberthreats. We strongly believe that this will become a best-practice model for just-in-time learning within rapidly evolving fields like cybersecurity.
The program will help people by making a significant impact on the critical shortage of qualified professionals in this space. There are currently over 500,000 unfilled cybersecurity jobs across the U.S. according to CyberSeek, and Cybersecurity Ventures predicts that there will be over 3.5 million unfilled jobs globally by 2021. Sending people back to degree programs to develop their cybersecurity knowledge and skill is simply not viable — organizations will never be able to catch up and keep up with how quickly the industry is changing. Cybersecurity for All® is an innovative solution to provide organizations and individuals with the knowledge and skills needed to enter, re-skill or upskill a career in cybersecurity.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
When it comes to women in the field of cybersecurity specifically, I am not satisfied with the status quo. Women currently represent approximately 11 percent of the field and that is simply unacceptable. We all need to work together and work harder to enhance opportunities for women in cybersecurity.
The good news is that there are a variety of initiatives that we have launched to improve female representation, and hopefully we can continue to build upon these.
For instance, we need to highlight career opportunities in cybersecurity and promote interest in cyber hygiene from an early age. Many studies show that female students will make up their minds about career choices by middle school. We need to start building awareness and creating learning opportunities as early as elementary school, by engaging in age-appropriate conversations and activities that foster good cyber hygiene.
This is exactly what our Cybersecurity Ambassadors program does. Children and young adults across the globe today are digital natives — they are well-connected and grew up in a digital age. We need to take a hard look at what guidance they are being given to develop good cyber hygiene skills and shape how informed they are when it comes to the use of their devices or online safety, for instance. We recruit passionate female UWF students to serve as Cybersecurity Ambassadors, who in turn serve as role models and help inspire future generations.
We also recently became the Florida Women in Cybersecurity Affiliate to help recruit and advance women in cybersecurity across the state. The program will help create more mentoring, networking and role model opportunities across the spectrum — whether for college students or working professionals. Women are more likely to succeed if they are able to identify successful role models and if they have access to mentoring opportunities that help them advance, whether they are just starting their career or are moving into a senior leadership position.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
Being one of very few women in a field like cybersecurity can certainly be a challenge. When you’re the only woman at the table, it can feel intimidating. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help that many women will experience Imposter Syndrome and may hold back from pursuing certain opportunities because they feel they aren’t qualified enough for the role, or they feel they must wait until they have perfected their skills first.
This goes back to the need for more mentoring, more role models, and overall, greater support for the advancement of women in STEM and cybersecurity. I always recommend that women in these fields take a seat at the table and step up to take the lead if they have an opportunity. Give yourself the credit you deserve rather than doubt yourself.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
A common barrier for women in STEM is that they feel they need to strive for perfection in order to progress. Many women will wait until they feel 100 percent qualified before taking on new responsibilities or considering a new role.
For women who feel this pressure, my advice is: “good is often good enough.” Reflect on your goals and develop a plan of action to achieve them. If there are opportunities for you to step up and lead, take them. You don’t have to wait until you are 100 percent ready to make a difference. You’ll never make a difference if you don’t try.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Be your own best advocate — make sure that you are mindful of what is important for your professional development and take the initiative to advance your own growth. Many women will not ask for things when it comes to their careers and will instead wait for opportunities to present themselves. Unless you step up and advocate for yourself, those opportunities may never come.
- Be bold — in a dynamically evolving field like cybersecurity that is desperate for solutions that are scalable and replicable, every idea counts. This involves thinking big and being comfortable taking risks and learning from every experience. Don’t be afraid to dream big and follow up with action plans and continuous improvement.
- Build and utilize a strong professional network — I encourage anyone, regardless of what industry they’re in, to not only develop a strong network, but truly make use of it. Identify mentors, industry professionals and colleagues that you can seek input and advice from, that you can bounce ideas off of, and that you trust to provide you with valuable feedback.
- Don’t hold yourself back — ignore the voice in the back of your head that’s telling you, I’m not qualified enough for this, or I’m not ready for this. Don’t hold yourself back from opportunities — take the lead on them when they are presented to you. Continue to seek professional development opportunities to give you the knowledge, skills and confidence to move forward.
- Follow your passion — take time to reflect on what motivates and inspires you and follow that path. You will be more likely to work hard and achieve goals if you are doing what you love.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Establish clear goals and communication strategies. In today’s STEM fields, and particularly in cybersecurity, we need diversity of thought and perspective to continue to innovate. Effective communication is crucial, and it goes both ways — leaders must be thoughtful in how they communicate to their teams, and must also be receptive to the input, suggestions and feedback communicated by the team members they manage.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Prioritize goals, set clear expectations and delegate.
Business opportunities will crop up continuously, and its important that leaders take the time to reflect on each opportunity and decide if it’s important to the core mission of the organization. Ask yourself, how will this advance my organization’s objectives? If there isn’t a clear answer to this question, it may be an indicator to either forego the opportunity or deprioritize it.
Delegate to team members and establish the trust and flexibility needed to exceed expectations. Promote a team culture that helps advance team members, which will in turn, advance the organization.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve been blessed to have had some great mentors and colleagues throughout my career. Our University leadership has provided guidance and flexibility to advance cybersecurity and make a difference, When I first started my Ph.D. program, I was also fortunate to have a wonderful mentor as my Ph.D. advisor when I first launched my career. These mentors struck the right balance between providing guidance and flexibility to find my own way, advance my career and make a difference.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Being able to make a difference and help our community, regionally and nationally, is what motivates me to work hard every day. I always make time to think about how what we do can help the greater good.
For example, how can we create impactful solutions to solve common problems? Are doing enough to share the models and best practices we’ve developed with peers across our region? Across the country? By asking these questions, we ensure that we’re not only helping ourselves, but are helping the broader community.
I also enjoy serving as a mentor and role model for other women interested in pursuing or advancing working careers in the field of cybersecurity. I hope that by sharing my experiences, I can help inspire them to take steps toward advancing their careers and shaping future cybersecurity practices.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
If I could inspire a movement, I would focus on ways to bring technology and Internet connectivity to everyone with the goal of expanding education. We live in a constantly evolving digital world. Providing more opportunities for everyone to learn and adapt will help create a better future for all of us. I would love to inspire a movement that fosters a culture of digitally connected lifelong learners.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Growing up, my father would always say, “It doesn’t hurt to ask.” As a teenager, that was usually the last thing I wanted to do, but now, I’ve learned the importance of asking the right questions that will help us serve as better leaders. We are in a field that needs collaboration and innovation — two things that can only be accomplished through curiosity and questioning.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
I’d love to have lunch with Ginny Rommetty, CEO, IBM, and hear about her experiences and lessons learned as she rose through the ranks to become the first woman to lead the company.