I’m the only woman at cybersecurity executive meetings – and that’s sad

If you feel injustice or bias at work, call it out, Nicole Sundin tells me. She knows how lonely it is to work and prosper in the male-dominated field of cybersecurity.

Nicole Sundin serves as the chief product officer (CPO) at Axio, a provider of cyber risk-management software. Beyond her role in the tech industry, she passionately advocates for both usable security solutions and greater inclusivity for women in her sector, where they still face significant under-representation.

“It matters to me that I’m a woman,” Nicole tells me, being precisely that – a talented and skilled woman in a man’s world.

Nicole’s journey: from research to usability

Nicole started her career some 15 years ago, working as a qualitative researcher. She was working with “gigantic” reports, always doubting who was going to read them. That’s when Nicole started utilizing graphs and infographics, and got into data visualization design.

Her first job within this field was with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), where she took care of design for the technology department.

“That's where I got into cybersecurity ops and tooling. I did that for about five years where I fell in love with cybersecurity. I started working on my PhD for human-centered computing, focusing on the intersection of data visualization and usable security,” Nicole recalls.

That’s how she landed a job at a cybersecurity firm, Thycotic, where she built its user experience (UX) team from the ground up. Nicole has focused on usable security – a term you don’t hear that often.

“What I think about usable security is that if a product is hard to implement, if a security product is hard to use, you are inherently becoming insecure, right?” Nicole explained.

Security products have been “notoriously hard to use” for quite a long time, but that’s beginning to change, Nicole reckons.

At Axio, her main goal is to make products easy to use and in that way increase the company's revenue.

Usable security explained

User experience, Nicole believes, is taking off. Many people in fact nowadays join the technology sector with little technical knowledge, given the skills shortage.

“The younger generation is coming in, they crave and desire usability because they have used computer products their whole life. They know what good looks like and they want everything to look like their Google, like their Gmail,” Nicole said.

At the same time, some people have what she calls a “configuration persona” – the ones who believe that more complicated stuff is more secure. The challenge for UX specialists is to service them both – the so-called configuration types, and the younger generation or “utilization personas.”

“It's such an uphill battle in regards to changing people’s minds into how things should work effectively in a product. There are people who really deeply care about it. They’re loud. I feel like my voice is pretty loud in this space,” says Nicole, who believes that she’s heard because she’s been quite successful at tying UX input to revenue.

“That is a skill set that is missing from UX leaders. They will always be probably the last person to get a budget, and probably not have a seat at the table. Those two things: you’ve got to get a budget, you’ve got to have a seat at the table. Unless you’re tying your work to revenue, it's really hard to do,” Nicole said.

Woman in a man’s world

You know what else is hard? Being a female leader in an industry where women are heavily under-represented.

“I'm usually the only woman in every executive meeting, board meeting. That makes me sad. I bring a very valuable voice to the table,” says Nicole.

She takes it as her duty to elevate other women, to mentor and support them. She faces unconscious bias daily, and sees other women experience that, too. For example, sometimes men dismiss women’s opinions, calling them emotional.

“You’ve got to call it out, because people are good. They don't know sometimes that they're doing things like that. You’ve got to call it out, have a conversation.”

But what about women whose voices are maybe not as loud as Nicole’s? After all, she’s already got a seat at the table.

Her answer is to recommend finding a more senior woman in the workplace for guidance.

“I really believe that in organizations with new women starting in technology, maybe they should be paired with a woman of seniority. I think in some ways that's the hardest part of starting a new job in general – regardless of gender, you feel like an outsider. So finding someone, that woman of seniority to be paired with, is one of the best things that HR could do for people,” she says.