She walked into a NATO Committee as a security expert, everyone thought she was a waitress
At the age of 21, Agnese Morici saw her dream to be a diplomat shattered into pieces. Six years and many broken stereotypes later, she proudly calls herself a cybersecurity expert.
A shy and simple girl, as Agnese described herself to CyberNews, now blossomed into a self-confident cybersecurity consultant. Not only did she break into the field despite her closest friends and family nagging her about not having what it takes (basically, not being a man), but Agnese also strives to make the field more welcoming to other women.
A couple of years ago, Agnese had the opportunity to work on a NATO project designed to outreach to the countries that are members of the Mediterranean Dialogue and Istanbul Cooperation Initiative and partners from the broader region of the Middle East. She was assigned to advise a NATO Committee, whose members were military men. Agnese was very happy on her first day, introducing herself and making connections during the Committee meeting.
“Every military representative present in the Committee thought that I was not the advisor of the Committee, but a waitress for the Committee,” Agnese recalled. A woman of 25 cannot advise men twice her age, can she? She must be a waitress.
This unpleasant situation aptly describes the hardship many women find themselves in when breaking into cybersecurity, or actually, any other male-dominated industry. It appears that only 11% of the workforce in cybersecurity are women.
In any case, being a young woman from Rome (“I’m Italian. It means that I’m very talkative,” Agnese said, and the interview proved her right), she didn’t grow up dreaming about elbowing her way into cybersecurity. Since the age of 10, she dreamt about being a diplomat, which was a surprise to her family as no relative had a job even remotely close to diplomacy.
So imagine what Agnese felt when she started working at an embassy and suddenly realized that she was not meant to be a diplomat, and it just didn’t feel right?
“I was shocked,” Agnese told CyberNews. She could not fully express herself in such an environment, and her decade-long dream to work as a diplomat in an embassy or ministry shattered to pieces. “But failure is the first attempt to learn,” Agnese added.
Despite shocking revelations, she managed to finish her bachelor's in political science and master's in international relations. The university opened opportunities for her to hold different positions, so Agnese did not want to turn them down.
After the embassy, Agnese started working in the ICT (Information and Communications Technology) industry.
“I discovered that I was not only a very curious person but a very dynamic person who would like to be engaged in different projects, environments, with different people. Big companies were my perfect fit environment,” she said.
That’s where she met an inspiring mentor - the company was run by a single mother of three.
“She taught me to believe in myself, not to be afraid of being a newbie in this field, to have soft skills typical of the female sex that she considered essential for the cybersecurity world: problem-solving, critical thinking, curiosity, skills in the perception of risk,” she said.
Thanks to Agnese’s mentor, the world of security no longer scared her, even though it was not easy at first.
Agnese really needed some encouragement at the time, having her dream of being a diplomat broken, and a lot of people, even those closest to her, doubting whether a girl with no technical background could make a career in cybersecurity.
“Everyone expressed that I was not perfect for the security field, that I was a woman, and did not have the right attitude and technical background, so I could not achieve anything in this field. Everyone, including family, friends, people who are closest to me, stressed this and tried to make me feel that I was not good enough for this field,” Agnese said.
Well, not exactly everyone. Agnese's mother and her grandmother turned out to be her biggest cheerleaders. Slowly working her way through the industry, a young woman created a network of cybersecurity professionals. A lot of people kept asking how she broke into cybersecurity, having no technical background.
Eventually, Agnese took another master’s program to learn more about the field she became so passionate about. Her studies focus on critical infrastructures, risk management, data protection, and data governance. Now Agnese, being 27, is a cybersecurity analyst inside a consulting company.
You proved your critics wrong, I told Agnese, and she laughed at my statement. Despite her breakthrough, the cybersecurity industry could be more welcoming to young girls and women, Agnese reckons.
She told me that she met supportive men in the field, and they definitely should be the ones that make the environment welcoming as they make the majority of the workforce. But, ironically, Agnese added, she met many women who didn’t show any support whatsoever.
“I want to stress that there are some unsupportive women inside this field, and that is why we need role models and more supportive women. Women bring a variety of skills and knowledge to the security teams,” Agnese said.
What do women bring to the table, anyway? Diversity, she explained. Cybercriminals come from various backgrounds, and therefore those who stand guard must have different skills, too.
“You cannot fight cybercriminals without having employees with different perspectives, expertise, and backgrounds. Much more needs to be done to encourage women to enter cybersecurity, especially because many companies complain about the skills. Involving women in cybersecurity from a young age is a great way forward,” she said.
Diversity is just good for the business, Agnese added, so a woman shouldn’t be told by anyone to “know her place.”
She loves to retell a story of a poppy field. A beautiful, colorful field is full of flowers of the same height. A field where no poppy prevails over the other, and there’s no gender or any other type of stereotypes, where everyone has the same opportunities and grows at the same time. Only it is not what it seems to be.
What if you want to be a taller poppy? Someone will try to make you feel wrong about your life goals and make you feel that you are not the architect of your destiny, and that you do not deserve to be a higher poppy.
“Someone will say that it is wrong to think that you can be different from others, and so you have to know your place, and you cannot dream of greater things. That was how I felt when someone told me that I am a woman in cybersecurity and I do not deserve it,” Agnese said.
But everyone is unique, and you should not pay attention to any comments thrown at you to bring you down, Agnese believes.
It is why she is currently building her mentorship program - with a purpose to inspire others and make the cybersecurity field more welcoming to other women.
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