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Women of security: Anca Dabija

Updated: Feb 1




Anca Dabija shares her incredibly fascinating experiences, challenges and successes in the security sector. Now working in an EU Agency as a security support officer and pursuing a professional doctorate on women in security in leadership positions, Anca discusses her observations and lived experiences that have shaped her career to date, and elaborates on why she advocates for empowering women in this sector.



What does ‘security industry’ mean for you? How would you describe the industry?


Growing up, my definition of security industry revolved around manned guarding in commercial or public places. I gained a better and fuller understanding of what the industry represents after I have been in contact with various of its facets, from security sector reform, to cyber security, risk management, industrial, physical and technical security. Only then did I understand its potential for development, and the place for manoeuvre it gives to all its professionals.


Sadly, it remains a male-dominated profession, where women and other minorities are underrepresented, but we are slowly getting there. There is a shift in the security professional stereotype according to the literature, compared to twenty or thirty years ago, when an imposing physical presence was the stereotype, and when the overwhelming majority comprised of second careerist coming from the military or law enforcement. Nowadays, with security expanding to other areas where attributes such as creativity, empathy, business orientation, IT and AI technical skills, are more valuable, more and more choose security as their first career.



Did you shape your career to work in this sector? Could you describe your journey that lead into your current role?


When I was seven years old, a friend asked me on the playground what I want to be when I grow up. ‘I want to be a policeMAN’, was my answer. By then I had not seen any women police officers, hence my answer. Pursuing this dream, I joined the Police Academy and graduated as a gendarme officer. After some years of street work and being the only female officer in the battalion, I joined the analysis department, where I discovered my potential and my passion for risk management. I was bringing a new perspective to the final product, by applying a gendered lens (to the extent possible in those circumstances).


I applied for a position in a CSDP (EU Common Security Defence Policy) mission in Somalia, and worked there for two years. It was an amazing period which revealed more of my skills (under the proper mentorship). Upon my return, I realised I was a different person. I was humbler, more appreciative of everything surrounding me, taking less things for granted after experiencing several losses while in the mission (both human and professional). I decided that I could offer more, and could develop in different directions if I moved to the private sector, so I took a leap of faith, after carefully considering giving up a military career.


I am now working in an EU Agency, as a security support officer, and pursuing a professional doctorate on women in security in leadership positions in my free time, and plan on further developing my career in this profession.



What role do you think women play in the security industry?


Women are rattling the industry and changing the narrative stuck in the same place for years. We are calling out sexism, discrimination and we are challenging stereotypes. We are bringing new expertise and different perspectives on the same ol’ procedures, we are inviting diversity and inclusivity, and we are claiming our seat at the table. And to quote an excellent female security professional I have recently discussed with ‘if we do not get a seat at the table, we are building our own table’.


This does not mean that women are refusing dialogue or isolating themselves in special gendered bubbles, just to hear the echo of their own speech. Women in security are working side by side with men in security to move this profession forward, to make it more open to newcomers, to help advance a profession recognised since the XIII-th century. Women are given voices, but this doesn’t mean silencing men in the industry.


This does not mean that women are refusing dialogue or isolating themselves in special gendered bubbles, just to hear the echo of their own speech. Women in security are working side by side with men in security to move this profession forward, to make it more open to newcomers, to help advance a profession recognised since the XIII-th century. Women are given voices, but this doesn’t mean silencing men in the industry.

What do you like about your work and what inspires you about this sector?


I fell in love with the potential for development this sector offers, and with the fact that you are never bored with what you are doing. You might not know how to code, but be a brilliant cyber security analyst, and this contributes to the freedom this sector offers. There are always different emerging challenges, threats are never the same over a five-year period. It is true that you may encounter a kind of cyclicity or patterns that guide the sector in a particular direction, but even when they resurface after being dormant, the challenges and threats are reinvented.


I feel a kind of thrill when I see that we need to up our game and keep pace with the trends, and pursue a continuous development. Looking at the amazing progress our security ancestors made with the limited resources they had, I can only imagine to what extent the sector is going to further expand its frontiers using technology and AI.



Do you think there is good career progression opportunities for women in the industry? What could be done in your opinion to create more opportunities?


Bringing more women on board is going to be a game changer for security as a profession. The energy, different perspectives and experiences, empathy and other soft skills are exactly what security needs to bring next to the recognised systems, procedures, and security strategies. Same applies for all underrepresented groups. Different perspectives bring evolution and development. We should consider looking at security through an intersectionality lens, and see how gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, physical disabilities, combine and create privilege and discrimination, and take it from there.


We should consider looking at security through an intersectionality lens, and see how gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, physical disabilities, combine and create privilege and discrimination, and take it from there.

I learned while listening to a research podcast on education that women were more likely to apply for a job if they fulfilled 80% of the requirements, whereas men apply for a position when fulfilling 60% of the requirements. This offers a wider pool of male candidates to begin with, so tailoring the job descriptions and requirements to be more inclusive, might be a starting point.


Flexible working hours might be a plus for women who are primary care-takers, as well as childcare. I am not suggesting every small security company should build their own 24/7 day-care facility to accommodate the needs of their employees, but perhaps if several small companies would join forces, we would see an increased interest in the profession.


In most of the male-dominated professions women face a glass ceiling (stained glass ceiling for clergy, brass ceiling for law enforcement), very difficult to surpass to access high-level management positions. However, we have daily proof that women are breaking the glass ceiling and extending their hands to those coming behind them, creating opportunities and fostering change. So, yes, I think there are career progression opportunities in security, you just need to see them and work for them.



What do you consider your biggest successes throughout your career?


Every stage of my career had its own major achievements. In my early patrolling days, I had apprehended unintentionally (the purpose of the mission was different) an international escaped convict, with several international arrest warrants. During my analysis department period, the highest commanding officer of the gendarmerie would trust my work and present it without reviewing it to the echelon. That was something unprecedented, and I felt a lot of performance pressure.


My biggest success during my international deployment was gaining the trust and respect of the police unit I was working with (95% men with a particular cultural view of women), mentoring them, and taking them to an international military exercise where their performance exceeded expectations. The women police officers who were part of that contingent were rewarded for their performance by the U.S Navy. I take great pride in the fact that they were the only two females amongst almost 300 participants. Of course, I need to acknowledge my team-mate and his outstanding contribution to this joint success.


Another great achievement is being accepted in a professional doctorate programme. This experience opened my eyes to the possibilities out there, in the security profession



What have been your biggest challenges in your career? And your biggest challenges in the security sector?


I experienced sexism, misogyny, discrimination, stereotyping every step of the way. I had to work hard, sometimes maybe three times more than a male colleague, just to be seen and prove my worth. I have been asked to make coffees although I was an officer and we had catering services for that purpose. I have been skipped promotions followed by apologies from my superiors saying that they knew I was good at my job, but the promoted person was a man and I had to understand that. I didn’t.


I have been volunteered for difficult, nerve-wrecking tasks without anybody asking for my opinion.


I have had my hair tucked behind my ear by a senior officer, and when I tried to avoid him touching me, he asked what was wrong with me-he was just trying to make my hair look nice.


I worked in environments where information was not shared with me, although I was on similar positions, or where professional discussions were held during football matches or tennis games (which I did not attend) followed by shifts in strategy, which I was the last to find out. A job opportunity was conditioned by my desire (or not) to have children during that tenure.


Nevertheless, I learned to transform challenges into growth opportunities. I educated myself and built a voice, I learned I had instruments to fight harassment, I discovered that deep down inside I was a feminist without knowing it. I promised myself that I will advocate for women’s rights and equal treatment, and if I can help it, no one will have to go through similar experiences.

Nevertheless, I learned to transform challenges into growth opportunities. I educated myself and built a voice, I learned I had instruments to fight harassment, I discovered that deep down inside I was a feminist without knowing it. I promised myself that I will advocate for women’s rights and equal treatment, and if I can help it, no one will have to go through similar experiences.



What does the word ‘security’ signify to you?


The power to provide comfort.



If you could create any changes in this sector, what would they be?


Competition brings development and different opportunities, and is the opposite of monopole. I would change the general perception that competition must be cruel, in order to get to the finish line. I would open up some of the elitist, exclusive clubs to the ‘security masses’ and underrepresented categories and follow closely the outcomes.


I would gather brilliant minds and researchers, and put together as comprehensive and as universal as possible regulatory framework, to set joint standards embraced by all the security professionals. They should include continuous professional development, exchange programmes, recruitment from educational institutions and a defined career path. I am aware of some efforts in this direction, but the highest they go is country-level.


Do you have any role models or mentors who have inspired your journey?


During my military times, women role models or mentors were scarce, so I had to broaden my area of search. My very first two mentors were men who believed in me, who gave me a chance, kicked me out of the nest when I was ready to fly but didn’t know it, and who still check on me and send me job recommendations or interesting reading material. They did not call themselves mentors, nor did I, because at the time I did not have that word in my vocabulary. I am very grateful for how they contributed to shaping the professional I am today.


I cannot leave out my doctoral supervisor, Professor of Criminology and Security Studies, Dr. Alison Wakefield, from this category. She created a perfect balance between soft nudges and not so soft kicks, when anxiety paralyses me and I am questioning my worth (imposter syndrome at its best).


On the same note, I recently engaged in research conversations with several female security professionals for the pilot study of my doctoral programme. Reflecting on the experience, I thought ‘When I grow up, I want to be just like them.’ Together they bring an enormous contribution to the energy of the sector, and I have faith that it is thanks to their efforts, to our joint efforts, that the security profession will become more inclusive and more diverse. I feel humbled by the experience, and I never envisaged such an opportunity to openly discuss with such a supportive and proactive community. This is what role models are about: setting a healthy pace and a safe space for development, while leaving no one behind.


Reflecting on the experience, I thought ‘When I grow up, I want to be just like them.’ Together they bring an enormous contribution to the energy of the sector, and I have faith that it is thanks to their efforts, to our joint efforts, that the security profession will become more inclusive and more diverse. I feel humbled by the experience, and I never envisaged such an opportunity to openly discuss with such a supportive and proactive community. This is what role models are about: setting a healthy pace and a safe space for development, while leaving no one behind

Is there any advice you would give for younger women who would look to start their careers in this sector? Where could they find out about the roles and career paths?


1. Don’t be shy! Ask the question if you don’t know the answer. You either build an image of a curious and interested professional, or you get the information you need. It’s win-win.


2. Prepare to be challenged every step of the way, so read! Read security magazines, listen to podcasts, follow security related hashtags on Twitter or Instagram, visit the international organisations websites. See what research is out there in your area of expertise, be it CCTV, cyber, risk management. The amount of free information we have access to nowadays is amazing. Of course, use your judgement to filter out fake news. Attend webinars, trainings, get one certification at a time. My personal belief is that I should not allow any year to go by without getting a certification. This keeps me up-to-date with what is going on in the sector


3. Don’t be shy- part 2! Join professional networks where you could meet like-minded professionals. Some of the international security associations have discounted rates for students or early-career professionals. Actively engage in their events, expand your network.


4. Actively follow a role model or approach a mentor. Nowadays there are a couple of mentoring initiatives that I am aware of, and others under development. This allows newcomers (staring their career, changing career paths) to approach a group of people and actively build a mentoring relationship. Or simply, connect to someone you admire on LinkedIn and pop the question. The worst thing that could happen is they don’t answer your message. But just imagine the opportunities if they do answer your message. Disclaimer: I am not encouraging an active stalker or harasser behaviour!

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