Today we celebrate Women’s Equality Day. While the day formally commemorates the 1920 adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibits the government from denying the right to vote to citizens on the basis of sex – it has come to represent even more today. It is a symbol of women’s continued fight for equal rights.
We have come a long way since then, but there’s no denying that there’s still some way to go. In this interview with Florence Mottay, SVP Global Information Security, she shares her experience of working in a more male-dominated field and how she has successfully managed her career and is keen to see more women and diverse people in her sector.
Can you describe how you became interested in IT Security?
I’ve always evolved in fields where men were more dominant. I studied Mathematics, and I didn’t have a lot support from my teachers, but my family supported me. When I moved from France to US I met a teacher who taught Software Engineering who said: ‘You have a lot of potential. If you decide to focus your master on Software Engineering I’ll offer you a scholarship.’ So I moved to that field and when I did so I was the only woman to study this subject. The funny thing is, I didn’t know anything about Software Engineering while others did. I had to study really hard to get to the same level. But I was eager and keen to learn. This same teacher had grant programs at different companies such as Microsoft and HP, where students could do research. I was one of them. While doing research the topic of security started popping up. This was late ‘90s. As I graduated, my teacher had started a company that focused on Software Security and offered me a job. This is how I became an Ethical Hacker.
Can you tell us about your career path, and how you progressed in this field that is typically dominated by men?
I came into my first security role with knowledge about Software Engineering but I had no idea how to hack. I was employee number 7 in this company and was the first woman who joined. I wasn’t knowledgeable about this subject, so I studied until 3 am every single night for six months, to just become good. And I became really good! I wrote exploits that were used by US government agencies. I did this a few years and was then asked to open our European branch of our company, which I had also never done before. So I arrived in Europe and still I was the only woman in the company. I was trying to get women in our company but it was difficult back then. So we opened the branch, we grew in a couple of years and then sold it to a slightly bigger US based brand. I moved to the UK for them and I ran EMEA for hardware hacking company. To give you an example: we were hacking planes, boats, cars, etc. It was a different branch, but the thinking is still the same. The fun thing with hacking is that if you know how software and hardware works, than it doesn’t matter what you hack. In the basic it’s all the same. So all these steps happened in a time frame of ten years. I started thinking about what I could do more and that is when I met Ben Wishart, whom I noticed I could learn a lot from. So I became the CIS for Europe within Ahold Delhaize and after that took on the global role I’m currently in.
What is your view of this field, in terms of gender balance?
In terms of female to male ratio – it has always been some work to onboard women. In my first company the emotional intelligence in our team was low. If we were joined by women, or team members with different styles, I would translate and explain the things that were happening on the team. There was learning needed from everyone. . We were looking for ways to grow the gender balance on the team. Beginning in 2000, when I started working in Software Security, we worked with a team of 100 colleagues and only a small hand-ful were women. It was very niche. We’re still not there yet. We try, but not there yet.
The reason that the ratio keeps a little behind comes from a number of different things. The first is that 5 or 7 years ago this function was not as attractive to women, and it had a bit of a stigma. But hackers are now seen as cool. The second is that, and I don’t know why, is that women don’t always stay in this field. Men and women start in a junior positions but when they grow and learn, somehow women step out of this field and start working in a different one. We can do more to provide support and create opportunities for women, specifically meeting their needs. While the field still has a ways to go for diversity and balance on management levels, we are growing, aiming for our goal of 50/50 gender balance. .
How about the information security function at Ahold Delhaize. What can we do to positively impact gender balance?
I realize that we are retailers, and for some, we are not their first option. Potential employees don’t look at retailers for security jobs in the first place. At the same time what we do at Ahold Delhaize is fascinating and a lot of fun. So we need to advertise and communicate this more, internally and externally. I really try to talk up my team, my field, and my job here at Ahold Delhaize. Successful teams are diverse teams, that’s the simple truth. My whole professional life I’ve always individually coached women, whether they were in security or not. One of the question I always ask is: what is the worst that can happen if you start something? You could fail. Don’t be scared of failing, because it doesn’t matter. You can start again, and again.
What is one element of your life that has shaped your perspective?
My grandparents both worked. My grandmother grew up with a mom who lost her husband in World War II. She saw her mother – my great grandmother – struggling feeding her kids. So she decided at a very young age to work and be independent. I don’t know any better than my grandmother, who worked full-time in the tax industry, which during that time, was very male-dominated. She studied again at the age of 40 to become a Tax Inspector. My mother also worked fulltime. I grew up hearing from women around me to be independent, and to always prioritize the care of myself and my kids, no matter what life brings. They told me I could be whatever I want. So when I told others I wanted to study Mathematics and their reaction was: but you’re a woman! I didn’t care. I knew it was a harder field especially back then, so I know why they said it – to protect me. But it was okay for me.
What advice do you have for others pursuing their career goals?
What I would tell others, and what I also tell my two daughters, is that you always need to give your best to become something. Don’t limit yourself. Ask yourself the question: what is the worst thing that could happen? When my oldest daughter was six years old somebody asked her what she wanted to be when she was older. She told this person happily that she wanted to be a mother, have kids, that she wants to have a job and go on holidays. She didn’t pick just one, she took them all! And of course, in reality it is not always that easy. It is a lot of mental load. But along the way, it’s important to grow and learn.
I realize now that I never had this one big goal, a big dream to become a superstar or hero. And I still don’t have that. But I learn all the time. Opportunities come and go and you grab them if you like them. And always, my biggest priorities are my daughters, my family. I want to support them as much as possible.