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IWD 2024: The qualities that make women shine as CISOs
Thu, 7th Mar 2024

Rapid advancements in AI and major geopolitical events are constantly shaping the cybersecurity landscape, leading to the emergence of fresh threats that have the potential to disrupt businesses. Amidst this backdrop, the role of the Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) has evolved. Once predominantly focused on establishing security protocols and conducting risk assessments, CISOs are now involved in key decision-making processes on the board level. They also influence business strategy and guide organisations through an increasingly complex security landscape.

These changing expectations create opportunities for women to play pivotal roles in corporate strategy and guide organisations through current security challenges. As the CISO role moves away from deep technical expertise in networking and operating systems towards guiding business leadership, it becomes more accessible to a broader demographic, including women. 

Evolution of the CISO

In the past, CISOs were often seen as the technical gatekeepers responsible for managing key security concerns such as firewall configuration, periodic risk assessments, and ensuring compliance with various regulations. Their role was primarily reactive, responding to threats when they emerged. With the evolving threat landscape, CISO involvement expanded, covering policymaking, risk management, and collaboration with other C-level executives to align cybersecurity strategies with broader business goals.  

Today, although the role of the CISO can vary depending on the organisation, it typically extends more deeply into executive leadership and risk management. Their primary duty is to ensure that senior and board level leaders are informed about security risks that could impact organisational objectives, strategies, and business outcomes, as well as what can be done to bolster cyber defences.  

The modern CISO role encompasses the following key areas:

  • Cyber risk management – CISOs focus on proactive cyber risk management, developing strategies and frameworks aligned with organisational goals and priorities. They engage with leadership to communicate the impact of cyber threats and promote cybersecurity awareness across departments.
  • Compliance and regulatory adoption – Keeping abreast of regulatory changes and translating them into action is a key part of a CISO’s role, as it not only helps to mitigate legal and financial risk, it strengthens stakeholder trust and an organisation’s reputation.
  • Strategic business integration – CISOs are critical enablers in the business ecosystem, with insights on security considerations that can be instrumental in driving product innovation, shaping business strategies, and fostering secure relationships with vendors and partners.
  • Crisis management and incident response – Beyond prevention, CISOs oversee the development and execution of incident response plans, collaborating with cross-functional teams like legal and IT. Post-incident, they lead analyses to enhance response protocols and engage with stakeholders and regulatory bodies. They also act as crisis managers, mitigating fallout from security breaches, minimising negative impacts and ensuring business continuity.
  • Establishing and cultivating a ‘Security First’ business culture – The modern CISO fosters a strong security culture by spearheading awareness programmes and training initiatives. They advocate for advanced technologies to combat cyber threats, such as AI and ML tools, to strengthen defences.

Leveraging women’s leadership for cybersecurity

These areas of responsibility require critical thinking, driving for results, and strong collaborative skills. Per Harvard Business Review, these are all qualities that women are especially strong in. In fact, women were thought to be more effective in 84% of the key leadership capabilities measured, including taking initiative, acting with resilience, and displaying high integrity and honesty. All of these traits are essential to successfully leading an organisation to an improved cybersecurity posture. 

Today's CISOs face a multifaceted and dynamic landscape, extending beyond conventional IT security to encompass strategic, operational, and leadership duties. Greater diversity in cybersecurity roles introduces different ways of thinking and approaches that will benefit not only the security of organisations but also the cybersecurity community at large. 

As the changing cybersecurity environment brings new challenges – and the role of cybersecurity leaders adapts to meet them – it's an opportune moment for women to consider a career in cybersecurity leadership.