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To an outsider, the world of internet security sounds like a Game of Thrones-esque world of heroes and villains, secret societies (think ‘hacktivist’ group Anonymous) and hidden threats, with everyone trying to protect their respective fortresses.
Perhaps this is what Google’s Parisa Tabriz had in mind when she coined the title ‘Security Princess’ on her business card.
Ms. Tabriz heads a team of hackers in the US and Europe whose job it is to ensure the security of Google Chrome by ‘attacking’ their own company, in order to expose weaknesses in the system before the bad guys get there.
As a self-appointed princess, Ms. Tabriz is definitely more of the warrior, rather than the Disney variety. For anyone who uses the internet, that’s good to know – cybercrime is one of the greatest threats of the 21st century. We need more security professionals like her to keep the internet a safe place.
We need more women, too.
Bucking the trend to become a security pro
Parisa Tabriz is well acquainted with tech’s ‘only woman in the room’ dynamic. Speaking to the Telegraph in 2014, she noted that even though the industry is one of the fastest growing in the world, it “has a lot of catching up to do”. Google, for example, is still dominated by men (only 30% of its workforce are women):
“Fifty years ago there were similar percentages of women in medicine and law, now thankfully that’s shifted.”
And Ms. Tabriz is, both as a figurehead and campaigner, keen to accelerate the pace of change. When addressing a conference of young hackers in 2014, she urged the girls in attendance to pursue their dreams. Moreover, she dispelled the myth that playing with computers from a young age – characterized as a male activity – is somehow needed to master computer programming.
“I’m someone who didn’t learn how to program until my first year of college,” she told CBS in an interview last year.
Growing up in Chicago in the 80s, Ms. Tabriz, the oldest of three siblings, never showed any interest in computing. She was more outdoorsy, into art and playing sport (still is). It wasn’t until she attended college that she developed an interest and passion for coding and security. In 2007, while still studying, she was snapped up by Google – and she has excelled ever since.
Five years later, she was listed in Forbes magazine’s iconic 30 under 30 list. Today she manages Chrome’s security engineering team, helping make the world’s most popular browser safe. Beyond that, it seems that anything is possible for the expert.
Addressing the problem of inequality
Her ascent remains, however, the exception and not the rule. Although the advantages of tapping into female talent is widely accepted in Silicone Valley, this doesn’t mean that women are necessarily reaching the highest paid positions. One theory of why this might be, according to Lazlo Bock, SVP of People Operations at Google, is the different ways in which women and men are socialized.
Take Google for example. It operates a system whereby employees nominate themselves for promotions – however, as, the tech giant discovered when looking to tackle the issue internally, men were putting themselves forward far more often than women because of their self-perception of their own competency.
According to Mr. Bock, this means that Google “must invest extra effort to persuade women engineers to nominate themselves for promotions…. men jump at the chance, often before they are ready, and are often turned down”. When a woman puts herself forward, he says, she gets promoted nearly every time because she has often been advanced enough for a promotion for a while.
This is something that Ms. Tabriz herself notes as an explanation as to why women are not rising up the tech ladder. “There was a study done a few years ago which questioned people who had dropped out of their computer science course,” she told the Telegraph.
“Women who left tended to have a B-minus average and the most common reason they gave was that they were finding it too hard, whereas among the men the most common grade was a low C but the reason they gave was that it wasn’t interesting.”
Breaking the stereotypes
To fully unleash the potential of the female half of the population, efforts must be made to changes stereotypes around technology, coding and math and science in general.
“The stereotype is that girls and women are not as good at math and science as boys and men are … There’s evidence that by first grade, most kids already associate math with boys” says Christiane Corbett, who conducted a survey with the American Association of University Women on the status of women in the tech industry.
One could imagine that in a male dominated workplace coining the moniker ‘security princess’ would cause a lot of raised eyebrows, but Ms. Tabriz owns the label and successfully demonstrates that girls can aspire to be a princess, as well as ‘kick ass’ at internet security.
Author Editor, ESET