Women in Security: Changing the Narrative

Sept. 8, 2016
Mentoring and education provide aspiring women executives a place at the security table

Change – it is the greatest challenge and opportunity people face today. Change forces a company, an industry, even an entire nation to adapt in order to survive and succeed. The ascent and increased influence of women in previously male-dominated domains has begun a paradigm shift. 

Some of the greatest innovations have been realized under female leaders like IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, General Motors CEO Mary Barra, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the first female presidential nominee of a major political party, Hillary Clinton.  After all, the American people may vote to have a woman hold the highest office in the land this November. Despite there being monumental progress, the glass ceiling may be cracked, but is far from being shattered, which begs a question. What about female leadership in the security industry?

According to the International Information System Security Certification Consortium or (ISC) 2, just 10 percent of securities, specifically cyber, professionals worldwide are women. To flip that statistic, 90 percent are male. This number is staggering, especially for 2016, and merits a response. In order for the security industry to reach its highest potential, change must occur in both policy and practice to reflect that men and women play an equally critical role in keeping the world safe and secure.

“We must tap into all our talent,” said Laquitta DeMerchant, security officer and service account manager at NetIQ Corporation. “The next generation of security leaders must be more diverse than ever before. Women must play from the front lines to the C-level.” 

Where We Have Come From

Security has traditionally been viewed as a male profession and some have even called it the “good ole boys club.” It wasn’t until the mid to late twentieth century that it developed into a viable market with diverse job opportunities that would later attract women. From the mid-1950s to the late 1970s, security sector opportunities began to evolve. It was during this time that several industry organizations were founded, including the American Society for Industrial Security (ASIS International), the International Security Conferences (ISC Events), and the Security Industry Association (SIA).

As the industry gained momentum, women were just finding their footing in the workforce. According to a study called Civilian Labor Force by Sex, 1948-2015 Annual Averages, a report by the United States Department of Labor, women represented 38 percent of the working population in 1970. This figure grew to 46 percent by the mid-1990s by which time a small percentage of women had started working in security.  For those entering the market, many had worked in law enforcement so security was a logical move. For others, their experience was in a different field so security was entirely new.

“I was selling organic hair and skin care products to the African American community when the opportunity to get into the security industry presented itself,” said Eddie Reynolds, now the president and CEO of Iluminar Inc.

When asked about her impression of the security sector in the mid-1990s, Reynolds answered, “I loved it! It was great to learn about cameras, access control, fire and burglary systems. It was wonderful to interact with clients and design systems for them.”

“It was new and exciting,” added DeMerchant whose background was in IT. “When I was in college, none of the courses covered security in-depth. It was great to be on the cutting edge.”

 “The security industry had, at the time and still does to a degree, the reputation of ‘guards, guns, and gates,’ the proverbial door shaker,” said Dawn Gregory, who had come from the Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff Department.

“Once I saw the variety and growth potential of security, I was very impressed,” continued Gregory, who today is the site security manager for MillerCoors and the vice chair of ASIS International’s Fire and Life Safety Council.

Although the industry’s opportunities and day-to-day work had a strong appeal, the gender gap was off-putting for many women.

“I was shocked by how few women were in the industry,” said Karen Evans, president and CEO of Sielox, LLC, who began her career in the 1980s. “I always felt like I was one of the only females participating in technical training classes, site surveys and trade shows.”

Inge Sebyan Black, a security consultant and regional security manager for a national top 10 bank, described her initial reaction of the security industry in three words: “all male dominated.”

For Marianna Perry, who had worked for the Kentucky State Police, the small female presence in security wasn’t a surprise.

“I have always held positions in male-dominated industries, so the transition to the security industry was not a problem for me,” said Perry, now the owner of a consulting firm called Loss Prevention and Safety Management, LLC. “I had grown accustomed to being the only woman or one of the very few women at security events or training programs.”

Barriers Entering the Industry

Working in a male-centric industry presented steep challenges for early female pioneers. One of the most difficult obstacles was being stereotyped. Left unchallenged, these biases threatened to define the career course for these women.

“I was told early in my career that I would never be selected as a security director, as this position needed to be male to be respected and followed, and this was said by a female property manager,” said Gregory.

Women were seen as just being capable of holding administrative roles at security firms. In some cases, people viewed women as not belonging in security at all.

“In a few instances, I was considered an outsider and not a part of the team,” DeMerchant said. “I never expected a colleague to tell me I should be a stay at home mom. I never expected a colleague to tell me women should only work as a teacher, nurse or secretary.”

In addition to facing prejudices, women in security had to grapple with a lack of regard from their peers.

When asked about the hardest aspect of working in a primarily male industry, Evans said, “earning the respect of my customers, peers, management, and competitors.” Black had similar thoughts adding, “not being taken seriously, being undermined at times and working harder than my male counterparts.”

“The instant level of respect is not there for women as it automatically is for men in the industry,” Reynolds explained. “Women have to prove themselves first where men, in my opinion, are automatically perceived as the experts who know what they are doing and what they are talking about.”

Lack of respect, support, and opportunity for women aspiring to leadership is not just a security industry issue. It is a problem that still exists and permeates the private sector today. Women comprised just 25 percent of senior management at S&P 500 companies in 2015, according to Catalyst, which is a nonprofit organization that promotes progress and workplace inclusion for women. The organization also reported that women hold only 4.4 percent of the CEO positions at S&P 500 companies.

For the businesswomen who do work at the C-level and even own their own companies, there is still a gender disparity. The 2014 State of Women-Owned Businesses, a study by American Express Open, reported that women-owned businesses generated an average of $155,000 in revenue while other firms generated $400,000 per year. That is a 61 percent revenue gap. The statistics reveal just how hard women have had to work, both in the past and in the present, to crack the glass ceiling.

Overcoming Obstacles

Although faced with institutional limitations and disapproval, women have continually persevered to succeed in their profession. How did they overcome these trials in the face of such resistance, particularly in security? For many, the answer was mentorship.

“Something that has been extremely helpful to me is to have mentors,” said Perry. “These mentors were people that I knew I could count on for direction and sound advice, both of which are valuable resources.”

“The only reason I did not leave the industry is because I had strong mentors that were aware of the exact challenges I would face,” DeMerchant said. “They told me ahead of time these challenges were coming and they helped me navigate them. These strong mentors were able to help me get my career on the fast track and move into management.”

The power of mentoring should not be underestimated. Sallie Krawcheck, former chief of companies like Merrill Lynch and nicknamed the first lady of Wall Street, believes that relationships and networking are the “unspoken secret to success.” Along those lines, Deloitte reported in 2012 that retention is 25 percent higher for employees who have participated in company-sponsored mentoring.

The industry is recognizing the value of mentor groups and many have launched over the last several years. A prime example is the ASIS Women in Security Council, which was founded in 2009. The council is committed to creating programs that inspire women to enter the security field and that provide support to women who are already working in the industry. For many, the council has been invaluable.

Changing the Narrative

Through mentoring, networking, perseverance and time, the presence and influence of women in security have greatly increased over the last 30 years. There is a noticeable change in the market’s demographic.

“The industry went from less than two percent female to somewhere in the 10-15 percent participation range today,” Evans said.

Women have disrupted the status quo and their accomplishments have changed the narrative. Their examples have redefined the potential of what women can contribute to security. More women today are holding high-level positions and launching their own security companies like Reynolds and Evans.

“My greatest achievement in the security industry was starting Iluminar,” Reynolds affirmed. Reynolds had previously noticed the market’s lack of quality lighting solutions for video surveillance applications. To meet the need, she launched her company in 2009, which specializes in white light and infrared illumination as well as license plate recognition products.

Evans also reflected on her journey and the path to becoming the chief of Sielox.

“I started in the industry as an integration sales person, became a territory manager for a manufacturer, transitioned a division from a very large public company to a small publicly held hedge fund and then acquired the division and took it private in 2010,” Evans said.

Sielox is one of the leading access control technology companies today.

Brittany Galli is another notable security leader who represents the next generation of technology entrepreneurs. At age 25, she has co-founded a company called Mobotour and serves as the chair of technology for the ASIS Women in Security Council. For her, “operational insight and mapping out a plan to execute, no matter the objective,” has been her greatest achievement.

“I’ve become a valuable part of the tactical planning to get there. Bringing a security tech start-up from negative profitability to 300 percent growth year-over-year for the last four years is remarkable,” Galli said.

When asked about milestones they are proud of, DeMerchant and Black both talked about how they are now the experts in their field and serve as an advisor to their employer. Gregory and Perry discussed their certification.

“Obtaining my Certified Protection Professional (CPP) credential was my huge material achievement,” Gregory said. “However, the absolute greatest achievement is the people I know and work with and getting to make a difference in uncertain times.”

Perry said that receiving her CPP designation was a significant moment as well. She also talked about the value of having a voice in the industry. Perry co-authored two books on school security in 2014, submitted two new books to be published in 2016, and is a regular presenter as ASIS.

For Erin Parks, influencing actual change in the security programs at Sterling Bay was significant.

“I started my career in signals intelligence, while enlisted in the US Marine Corps,” Parks said. “As the first and only direct security employee of Sterling Bay, a successful real estate developer in Chicago, I applied my experience to improve upon existing and develop new security and life safety programs.”

As a result of the new protocols she installed, the Illinois Security Professionals Association recognized Parks with the 2015 Excellence in Security Operations  Award. Moreover, one of Sterling Bay’s buildings received The Outstanding Building of the Year award for the North Central Region by the Buildings Owners and Managers Association (BOMA).

Bridging the Gap for the Future

Despite substantial progress in gender diversity and female influence in security, there are still barriers that women face today. There remains a lack of awareness among women of the varied career opportunities in the security industry. 

Fortunately, this is a solvable problem.

“You cannot be what you cannot see,” DeMerchant explained. “Companies should promote their women in security to author white papers, speak on conference panels, and speak at K-12, colleges, and universities.”

And according to Evans, “offering additional networking opportunities and recruitment at college and technical institutions” is key.

Gregory concluded that “If the industry is truly interested in drawing diversity, it will talk to women and minorities, learn their stories, and acknowledge their perspectives. That will create the base from where great things are possible.”

Research shows that diversity sparks greater insight when it comes to problem solving and innovation—and now more than ever, it’s crucial that younger and older male employees in security forge close working relationships with their women counterparts. If the industry encourages executives to do this, there will be substantial growth and great achievements will be realized under the banner of change.

About the Authors: Kevin Friedman is the president of Maize Marketing, Inc., a full-service agency that creates sustainable marketing solutions for companies in the security and technology industries. Bringing more than 20 years of marketing, branding and storytelling experience to the team, Kevin is known as a highly innovative marketer who can always be trusted to come up with a new approach. 

 Tory Hinton is a skilled communications professional who specializes in marketing strategy, public relations, content creation, and writing. She currently serves as the public relations manager at Maize Marketing, Inc. where she spearheads sustainable marketing campaigns for companies in the security and technology sectors. 

About the Author

Tory Hinton | Director of Public Relations at Maize Marketing

Tory Hinton currently serves as the director of public relations at Maize Marketing, where she spearheads sustainable marketing campaigns for companies in the security and technology sectors. She graduated from University of Southern California and holds two bachelor's degrees in public relations and history.