Struggle is How You Grow: International Women’s Day 2020

Posted on 3 March 2020

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2020, our team of identity and security experts have been holding a number of insightful conversations with inspirational women from across the business and tech spheres.


One of those conversations took place between Shelley Hill – Identity Consultant and part of the Identity Experts family – and cyber-security professional, Dr Celeste Chamberlain. Together, Shelley and Celeste discuss women returning to work, overcoming workplace challenges, and the multi-faceted nature of the professional landscape and the people within it.


Shelley: Welcome, Celeste! Would you like to give us an introduction to who you are and what you do?

Celeste: Hello! OK, well, first thank you again for having me here – I really do appreciate the opportunity to speak with you on the experience, and hopefully some of my stories will help others to navigate the professional waters a little easier!

I guess I’m several things – I don’t think that anyone today is uni-faceted. Career-wise, I’m a cyber-security professional: I’ve worked in cyber-security roles for about twenty years, from a network engineer, all the way to being a CISO.

Academically, I’m a Doctor of Science and a professor of cyber-security – I teach at the master’s and Doctoral levels.

Personally, I am a mom of two boys – the youngest with special needs on the autism spectrum. I’m a wife and an autism advocate, and I’m on a constant search for the next good audiobook – so send recommendations my way!


S: Wow, you certainly do wear quite a few hats! How do you balance your children, being a professor, and a cyber-security professional?

C: Really, I think what has helped me is that I prioritise things: I’m really focused on a few things that are really important to me, and if there’s something that affects one of my things negatively, I take time to change that.

Also, if I feel like I’m in a negative situation, I try to make everything fit. So, with me being an autism advocate, I’m working with kids with autism, helping them to learn how to programme; I find ways to fit all of my hats together, even if they don’t seem like they’d connect.


S: Can you tell us about your career break?

C: So, before my kids came along, my main challenge was being a military wife. My family moved once every two years, which made my working life very choppy. So, although I was able to gain a lot of impressive experience, employers would look at that and feel wary as to how long I’d stay on the job.

One thing I did to counter that was to offer solutions early. I would do a lot of research into a company, either through LinkedIn, through Google, through other networks that I had, and I would try to figure out what their immediate needs were, because when a company posts a job and they’re looking to hire someone long-term, they’re also looking for someone to solve a problem.

I’d figure out what the immediate problems were, and I’d go into the interview ready to solve those things. Like, if it’s a company needing a change management system, I would have a charter in place, I would have a template for a ticketing system, have a template for policies and procedures – not necessarily made for that company, but to show that “hey, if you hired me, I’m ready to start leading these things today”.


After the military hurdle, I was met with another challenge, with having a career and a child with special needs. As I said, both of my sons have different needs as all children do, but my youngest has non-verbal autism, which means that he has a lot of doctor’s appointments, he has a lot of therapy appointments to go to, and that caused me to take a lot of time off work.

At this time, I was a CISO for a DC government agency. I felt like I really hit a wall: I just could not do it all and sustain it all. I really had to be candid with my employer and let them know ‘hey, this is what I’m going through’, and make sure I was being honest. And if you need to, you need to find a more flexible job – but sometimes that’s easier said than done. There are some employers out there who offer very flexible jobs, but they’re very competitive. So, if you find yourself getting into a situation where you’re going to have a lot of pressure coming up, start looking early.


S: Definitely. I found myself in a similar situation.  As you say, it’s coming to your employer with solutions of how you can still be an effective employee, even though you may not fit the mould that they usually have.

C: Right! And if your employer doesn’t understand that, then you really have to ask yourself “is this the place I really want to be?”


S: Absolutely. Obviously, you’ve had some good employers who were understanding, but do you think there’s anything other employers could do to assist in the process?

C: As far as how employers could help, I would say have compassion. To be honest, every employee will need different support, so there’s no real cookie-cutter process in place to deliver that, but if you show your employees compassion and put that they’re human first, I think that employees give that back tenfold. It may be hard if you have a large team or a team spread out around the world, but in most cases, you can have people report back to you on morale, on births, on birthdays, on sicknesses; those metrics are just as important to managers as project KPIs. You really have to care for your people.


S: Definitely, that’s really good advice! What about women who are out of work right now and wanting to try and get back into the workforce? Do you have any advice for them?

C: Yeah, so I think there’s rarely a clean ‘return back to work.’ People don’t come back to work 100%. Allow your employees a period to re-learn and transition, understanding that you won’t delegate and heavily pressure them. For women who are returning to the workforce, you can seek assistance from leadership advisory committees such as Gartner or Info-Tech.

Leveraging these research companies really made my life and my job a lot easier. You can use their research, their processes, and their policies, and you can tweak them to your organisation. It’s nice because you don’t have to reinvent the wheel; you know you’re getting quality documents and presentations without having to start everything from scratch. Those companies are very expensive, but if you can fund it through your employer, or can find something that fits your budget, they’re very helpful.


S: That’s really interesting. Do you have any advice for women trying to perfect their work/life balance?

C: There are three things I say to women who are trying to achieve that work/life balance:

First, have priorities, have perspective, and be open. Prioritise what’s important to you and don’t let things readjust that.

Also, evaluate your schedule to ensure you yourself are aligning with your priorities. You can tell me your priorities, but if that’s not what your schedule says then that’s not really your priority.

For example, if your priority is your health but you never go to the gym, then you have to do some inward reflection and ask yourself if that’s really your priority.


S: Absolutely, so really being honest with yourself as well as your employer what your priorities are, so that you can get that work/life balance right?

C: Yeah, definitely, and just having that perspective. You can have peace in the midst of chaos if you have the proper perspective.

People who’ve been through traumatic events often have this wonderful perspective and this unshakable drive. As women getting back into the workforce, we feel this overwhelming feeling that can also be kind of negative because you have all of these pressures at home and then you’re adding in all of these pressures at work. You don’t want to seem ‘weak’ having to worry about child-care, or you have to run back home, or can’t stay late to meetings – it’s a lot of pressure.


My son and I had this “grow your own butterfly” kit where we were able to watch this larva grow into a caterpillar, then a butterfly. When my son saw the butterfly try to break out of the cocoon and it was struggling, he said to me “Mom, can I break it open for him?” And I said no, you can’t do that because that struggle is what’s building those muscles so that the butterfly can fly. In life, you can use that: your struggle is the only way that you’ll achieve real growth, so don’t underestimate it and don’t devalue it. It is a process.


Success is a horrible teacher, so this process of returning to the workforce is something that will help you in order to help other women and other people under your leadership, it’ll help you be a better leader.


S: That’s a really nice analogy Celeste. I really appreciate that, it’s a nice way of looking at your struggles. It’s so true.

C: It’s not easy, for women. Even as young women first getting into the workforce, you have this path where you come out of college and everything’s really great and you’re getting all of these jobs, but then marriage comes, family comes, other things come, or your parents might be getting older, or you might be going through a divorce. It seems like that turbulent time is between your late 20’s and early 40s timeframe where it’s so stressful. We really all have to support one another in that timeframe, and have patience for yourself.


You don’t need to be perfect and you never will be perfect, you will mess up, you will miss a deadline, you will forget a birthday, you will forget to include vegetables in your kid’s dinner. And it’s okay. This anxiety comes from the Amygdala, which is an older part in your brain which evolved to give us these fight or flight reactions when we had to run away from lions for our survival, but now we have that same part of our brain that activates these panicked reactions for taxes or traffic or other first world problems, and we really have to tell ourselves that it is okay and you’re going to get through these things.


You don’t have to be perfect or compare yourself to someone else’s Instagram feed or have that be part of your daily struggle, take the time to tell yourself how awesome you are and counter all of those negative thoughts that make you feel like you’re not doing enough. Also take a moment to be aware of where you are in the process, be grateful for how far you’ve come, and be excited for the journey ahead. Even if the world won’t be patient with you, be kind enough to be patient with yourself.


S: Wise words, thank you Celeste. Have you ever felt Imposter Syndrome?

C: I feel Imposter Syndrome almost every day! When you first begin a job, there is that grace period where no matter what you do, it’s better than the company not having anyone in that position, so the bar is set a little low until you understand the nuances of that company. Then you get to the point where people really expect you to perform – they want what they paid for – at that point, you really feel that Imposter Syndrome. You think okay, so I know I interviewed well to get into this position, but do I really have the tools that I need?


This goes back to these outsourcing companies that support leaders, like Gartner and Info-Tech, that’s exactly what they did. I could pick up the phone and call an advisor and say “hey, I’m now the VP of a bank and this is my first time being in the financial industry, can you give me a report of hacks that have taken place in the financial industry and what they’ve done to try to improve,” that way I can take that information, pick out what I can use, and present that to my employer.

Having that live person to talk to who isn’t a part of your company – not a part of your chain of command, not a part of your review board – they are a totally different company whose job it is to support you, that is what really helped.


S: Yeah, I can imagine it would. As you say, having someone who’s not judging you and is only there to give you advice and back you up on sense checking.

C: I’d also recommend looking for a mentor, if you’re getting back into a certain industry or a certain position, utilise your network. A lot of people who are at chief or executive level do a lot of mentorships, so get a mentor early, so that way you can have those sanity checks.


S: Yeah that’s a really good idea. It might even be someone on LinkedIn that you’ve connected with that you can call on. That’s great advice. Thanks so much for your time Celeste, do you have any other advice you’d like to share with us?

C: I think that covers everything, I just hope that your readers and anyone who comes across the IWD podcast series, people who are in a situation where they feel very stressed and overwhelmed, I hope this helps. There are networks out there that can help. Just knowing that other people have been through it and have survived it, can make a difference. Just knowing that you’re not by yourself is always nice.


S: Absolutely. Thank you very much for your time, we appreciate it.



Thank you once again to Dr Celeste for joining in with our International Women’s Day festivities. Ready for some more? Be sure to check out our special Identity Talks podcast episodes on Soundcloud, and get in touch to find out more about where we’re at with women in tech.


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