Google's Parisa Tabriz - A princess like no other

  • Women still a minority in technology security
  • Google has various programmes to encourage diversity

 

Google's Parisa Tabriz - A princess like no other

 

TECHNOLOGY and technology security, in particular, have evolved for the better over the years. However, the fact remains that women are still a minority in technology, although great strides have been made on this front by a select few.

Parisa Tabriz (pic), who has the curious-sounding job title of Security Princess at Google, is one of them. Tabriz is the first to admit that her job title was a self-appointed one as she thought that her role of information security engineer was a mouthful and sounded too formal.

“When I was going to Asia for the first time my colleagues told me I needed to get business cards. So I chose Security Princess because it was less formal and a bit ironic because I actually wasn’t very girly or princess-like growing up. And I thought it would put smiles on people’s faces when they saw the card for the first time,” she recalled.

Tabriz is a veteran in technology security, having worked at Google for the past 10 years. “I try to make many of our products more secure. I also have worked at the White House and done some consulting work for the Obama administration, to help make government services more secure. So I have experience with industry as well as government.”

“So I have worked at Google for 10 years and my job has changed over those 10 years but our mission has stayed the same: to keep our users and their data safe. And I am just one of hundreds of people who work on security and privacy at Google. We have a team of over 500 who work on security and privacy and keeping user data safe across many different products,” she told Digital News Asia in a recent interview via conference call.

It's personal

What are some of the personal experiences she’s had that make her feel strongly about gender diversity in the technology field? Tabriz acknowledged that women are definitely a minority in tech and that it’s even more pronounced in security.

“And there are number of micro-aggressions that I have experienced, and that adequately describes what it’s like being a woman in technology. Some people do have more extreme circumstances where they really have been victims of overtly sexist behaviour. I’ve actually been pretty lucky in that I’ve not had overtly sexist action taken towards me.

“But many times I’ve been mistaken for someone who is a secretary or somebody who works in PR or someone who works in marketing and there’s nothing wrong with those fields for sure, but that’s not what I do. And I think that’s a common situation that women who work as engineers or in technology experience. Most people automatically just assume that they’re not working in technology,” she explained.

Another incident happened when she was in college. “I got an internship at Google and I was talking about summer plans with some of the others in my club and one of the guys said it is much easier for a girl to get an internship at Google because they probably have quotas to fill.

“I do think there is this thought that as a minority you have an easier time because companies or organisations have some kind of quota they need to fill. And I’ve encountered variants of that over time as well, which are first untrue, when it comes to Google, but do tear away at your confidence. Especially if you’re feeling insecure about being that one person who’s not like everyone else and you start to question if you’re there because of some kind of favouritism.”

The security industry in particular, can be a toxic environment for women, Tabriz said. “For instance, there’s a big security conference called DevCon, and it’s gotten much better over time, but when I first started attending it, there were ‘booth babes’, women dressed in scanty clothing who were essentially eye candy for all the security booths. So when women are highly sexualised at a conference you want to learn at, it makes you question whether you belong in that environment although you’re really interested in the problems at hand.”

Changing times

However, she does admit that things have improved from when she first started getting involved in security. “And because of really great friends and allies, many of them who are male and also thought that this was inappropriate and really not inclusive, I stuck with it, and feel really lucky to have had a support group. I think that’s one of the things I recommend to other women or any other marginalised group, to find people that you can relate to and know that we are trying to help make it better for the next generation. As a marginalised group, you won’t immediately fit in necessarily and (you should) expect some of that going in.”

Tabriz said that Google also added a code of conduct to Chrome a couple of years ago. This was because the open source community also has a reputation of sometimes being not very nice, and there are people who are rude and can say sexist things. “So we added a code of conduct to Chrome so that it is very clear that this behaviour is not acceptable and these are the things we will do when issues are actually raised. So I think there is definitely more discussion around the topic and that’s helpful.”

She added that within her team at Google, they have more of their leadership involved in terms of supporting women, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it’s better for business and makes for better technical solutions. “And we’re building a browser for two billion users and half of them are women, so we’d better make sure that we are building solutions for that population if we want to be successful,” Tabriz said.

Commenting on the diversity practices at Google, Tabriz noted that Google has a whole team that is dedicated to diversity. “To me, one of the things that was really effective is training for all employees towards unconscious bias. It’s at training for employees to actually make them check the biases they have and really question them. I think that it’s not just with men and women but things you may have against someone who is much later in their career and older versus someone who is young. All of these things can impact whether someone feels included in the workforce.

“The training is geared towards everyone in the company and how you can make the group more diverse. I have certain privileges as well as I have no physical, visual or hearing impairment and sometimes I even find myself not appreciating the difficulties you can have using the web with those impairments. The training makes you think about those things in very realistic scenarios. It’s important to keep the conversation going and talk about how we can make the office more inclusive for everyone.”

According to Tabriz, Google’s diversity efforts include sponsoring conferences and scholarships. “We have the Women Techmakers scholarship, and I have participated in a few of these events for women. It brings people from really diverse backgrounds, some can be students some can be later in their career, who are interested in tech or actually involved in tech. And we get really good speakers to come and actually do a project such as a code lab, or teach people how to build new web applications. We’ve done a code lab for Android apps, the idea with the Women Techmakers is to bring people together and teach them something, but also to form a community. Google invests a lot in building such networks outside of Google and we also give money and host events for kids who are in school,” she concluded.

For more information on Google’s diversity efforts, visit: https://www.google.com/diversity/ 
 
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