Simona Venuti, Security Manager for GARR, the Italian National Research and Education Network, talks to CONNECT on how stimulating curiosity and encouraging familiarity with technology from an early age can help to close the gender gap in STEM.
Interview by: Rosanna Norman, GÉANT
Simona, what influenced your study and career choices? Were you inspired by any Italian or international female role models in Computer Science or any other areas of STEM?
Curiosity influenced most of my choices!
Since childhood I have always been curious about what was inside things and how objects work. After “scuole medie” (secondary school in Italy), my parents would have liked me to opt for a more traditional field such as accounting. (But accounting was not my destiny.) By the age of 14 I was already able to program a Commodore64 and build electronic circuits, so I opted for “Liceo Scientifico” (science oriented senior secondary school). Later when deciding about my higher education path I chose Physics because I felt that this subject would have better satisfied my innate curiosity.
At university I discovered computers – mainly servers and a very big VAX9000 (yes, I’m that old) – and the internet. I fell in love with this ‘magic world’ and although I was not ‘technically’ allowed to use the faculty computers, one day, ’by chance’, I came across a user password for network access, and … used it. I would have been in real trouble if caught. During my university days, I also discovered information security after a friend from the USA managed to format remotely the PC I was working on (!). I was so fascinated by this field that I ended up learning more during my spare time until it became my passion and my beloved, fabulous job at GARR-CERT.
When I started studying information security, I didn’t have a specific role model, although I did admire the determination, charm and style of the great Italian scientist Rita Levi Montalcini.
Can you talk to us about a particular project you are currently working on?
I’m currently working on a project with Politecnico di Milano studying the traffic of DarkNets whose aim is to intercept more easily GARR infected/compromised IP and have a cleaner network as a result. I enjoy finding new and more efficient ways of doing things, I love working with people and participating in working groups, team building and brainstorming activities.
Would you share your experience where gender diversity in a team helped to achieve better results?
In information security the more you are able to see things from a different perspective, the more you are likely to find inspiring and useful ideas.
A few years ago, I happened to be the only woman in a working group and remember struggling to connect with a very quiet and reserved team member. Guided by my maternal experience and instinct I realised that he was just very shy and insecure, so after I created a more comfortable working environment and tried to give a little boost to his self-esteem, he started to join in and contribute to the discussions with great and original ideas. With hindsight probably also a good father could have achieved the same results, but on this occasion my intervention made a difference to the group dynamic confirming how precious every element of diversity can be in such circumstances.
Have you experienced gender discrimination in your field? Do you think that the Italian society can do more to encourage young girls to learn about STEM?
Luckily, I haven’t experienced any gender discrimination in my career to date. When I started, women in information security were such a rare find that I received so much support, experienced ‘positive’ gender discrimination and found myself in a very inclusive environment.
To bring more girls into STEM disciplines, I would start by stimulating their curiosity “to go inside things”, which is something that can be learned from a very young age. For example, my daughter has owned a tablet since she was 1. Of course, I have always supervised her, even now (especially now) that she’s 9. She grew without fear of technology and with the curiosity of “what if I do this or install that?”. At the age of 5 she created multiple accounts on Roblox (an online game) to give herself more diamonds, a sort of an intelligent hack. By seeing what other people did in that virtual environment pushed her to create her own world, and she started to learn how to program new realities and new games all by herself. I don’t know if she will study and work in STEM and do not intend to force her to follow my path, but I believe that a very important step was to make her comfortable with electronic devices and enable her to learn how to use them.
What advice would you give to other girls who aspire to work in your field?
Information security is a very fascinating field and its vast range of applications can take young girls in so many different directions. They will be learning constantly as every single future human invention will have a completely new information security impact. A keyword for me is “to study” as in this field one cannot stop studying or being curious not even for a day. So, my best advice is: follow your talent, study and be curious!
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