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Women of security: Romi Gaspirc

Updated: Oct 12, 2020




Romi Gaspirc, a security risk management advisor for an international development organisation, shares her inspiring journey to the security sector. Romi discussed her own challenges and successes, as well as wider observations about the industry.


As Romi remarks about the sector: "It's a very diverse sector, from corporate to private to humanitarian security, maritime to oil & gas, from executive to hostile close protection, from headquarter to field-based, and from access negotiation to analysis to operational, and more. A large part of the security world is male-dominated, but that does not mean there's no place for women, and I have met some very experienced and competent women in this field".




Are you currently employed in the security sector and what do you do for work?

I have worked in the humanitarian security sector from June 2015 till March 2020. After six months of a break, I've recently joined the development organisation as a security risk management advisor and hope to deploy overseas soonest. This move has been a transition from INGO to corporate security.


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

It's a very diverse sector, from corporate to private to humanitarian security, maritime to oil & gas, from executive to hostile close protection, from headquarter to field-based, and from access negotiation to analysis to operational, and more. A large part of the security world is male-dominated, but that does not mean there's no place for women, and I have met some very experienced and competent women in this field. It's mostly male-dominated in the sense that it employs ex-military and ex-law enforcement professionals, who are experienced in hostile theatres. However, there is a place for women in security.

It's a very diverse sector, from corporate to private to humanitarian security, maritime to oil & gas, from executive to hostile close protection, from headquarter to field-based, and from access negotiation to analysis to operational, and more.


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

In 2011, when I worked in the development sector, I got interested in the security field. I was remotely managing a project based in Mali. The insecurity on the ground meant colleagues could not do the fieldwork in time, and I had to prepare a report (security analysis) for the donors and request project extension. Back then, I also trained in self-defense and decided to volunteer as a minefield victim on the HEAT (hostile environment awareness) training. From then on, I was building up the network through LinkedIn, and in 2013 met a security professional who gave me information and advice about 'how to'. We stayed in touch, and by the end of 2014, he asked whether I'd be interested in working in South Sudan. The opportunity finally came in June 2015, and I jumped on the occasion. It was a steep learning curve, a low pay, but I was determined to make the best of this 'foot in between the door'. I stayed for 16 months, and despite some 'near misses' and sometimes very poor living conditions, it's been the mission where I made myself as a security professional.


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

Women do bring in different skill set and are increasingly sought after in the humanitarian security as elsewhere. We bring in a 'softer approach', perhaps more focused on communication, mediation, and negotiation. We might be well placed in access negotiation, security and political analysis, as well as trauma and crisis management. In an ever more inclusive world, security professionals are increasingly aware of diverse profiles and the need for their protection. Here too, women can bring value in understanding the specific needs of LGBTQIA and others who may need additional protection due to their gender, nationality, disability, religion, family or tribal affiliation, or other.

I have also met and worked with female colleagues leading country security teams in humanitarian and corporate sectors, line managing expat, and national teams of security professionals. Finally, I have worked shoulder to shoulder with Middle Eastern male colleagues who experienced decades of hostilities. We were able to work as one team, each complimenting each other.


Women do bring in different skill set and are increasingly sought after in the humanitarian security as elsewhere. We bring in a 'softer approach', perhaps more focused on communication, mediation, and negotiation. We might be well placed in access negotiation, security and political analysis, as well as trauma and crisis management. In an ever more inclusive world, security professionals are increasingly aware of diverse profiles and the need for their protection. Here too, women can bring value in understanding the specific needs of LGBTQIA and others who may need additional protection due to their gender, nationality, disability, religion, family or tribal affiliation, or other.


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

Oh, that's my favourite question. I have always been warmly welcomed by my colleagues and local communities in South Sudan, Iraq, Yemen, and North-East Syria, and I've made friends (and families) for life. These communities have experienced long-lasting and profound traumas and have mostly never received any psychosocial support. And yet these are some of the warmest and most honest people who will pour their hearts out. The human connection and respect I've been treated with are immensely rewarding, and in difficult times I often recall many beautiful memories or reach out to my friends. My missions never stop, neither with the end of the contract nor my leaving the country. I continue to support my colleagues with coaching, distance learning, writing up their CVs and LinkedIn profiles, sending job opportunities, and providing networking and recommendations. There are endless opportunities to learn and to give. And – isn't that what makes us human?

Additionally, humanitarian and development professionals serve local communities, provide basic services, and help restore their dignity. It's the giving to the less privileged who are not responsible nor guilty for the predicament they found themselves in. It's my duty as a human being to help and give.


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?

I do see more and more doors opening to women in security. Security is no more ex-military males security only. It evolved and is understood as so much more, and the needs are diverse. Currently, TORs are written as these have always been, with added line 'female candidates are encouraged to apply'. Perhaps the job description and requirements need to be looked at and tailored to attract more women. There's a Facebook group 'women in humanitarian security', yet it's not active. I see a need for a forum where female security professionals can meet, exchange information and experiences. There, young aspiring colleagues can network and get information and learn of opportunities. I also see a need for tailored trainings. Currently, HEAT and the majority of the safety and security trainings are dominated by male trainers; I tried to break into that field unsuccessfully so far. However, there are organisations where women can find useful information such as SheTravel as well as GISF.


Currently, TORs are written as these have always been, with added line 'female candidates are encouraged to apply'. Perhaps the job description and requirements need to be looked at and tailored to attract more women. There's a Facebook group 'women in humanitarian security', yet it's not active. I see a need for a forum where female security professionals can meet, exchange information and experiences.


What do you consider your biggest successes throughout your career?

In the last five years, I have managed to protect national and expat colleagues' and enabled their programs to be delivered in often challenging and dynamic security landscapes. I have successfully relocated and evacuated colleagues from insecure situations, and have created a vast international network and a respectable reputation. But above all, I remain humble and eager to learn and grow further. I am also committed to helping the younger generation of aspiring (female) security colleagues and building a better future and opportunities for the colleagues I worked with.


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

One of the biggest challenges in security is that we are advisors, not decision-makers. In the INGO sector, offices are often staffed with young expat colleagues, and I observed that leadership sometimes lacks professionalism and maturity. This is one challenge; the other is on you to create 'buy in'. Often there's a struggle for the security budget and security advisors we're often running under budgeted. There are reports of sexual harassment; however, I have not experienced any of that in the last five years. As female security, I have only once felt that the local male colleagues did not accept me, and I'd attribute that to the conservative culture. Sometimes, the self-doubt kicks in, and I reach out to security colleagues who quickly remind me that they count on me and are happy to have me on their team. And looking globally, humanitarian and development actors are targeted more and more due to the ever growing number of non-state armed actors and constantly evolving insecure environments.


What does the word 'security' signify to you?

It's a duty of care; it means protecting your team from security risks, as well as safety hazards. Through networking and exchange of information, we also care for the safety of colleagues outside of our organisation. And it's also the psychosocial care and support, which I'm personally passionate about. Finally, it's one of the crucial cogs in the wheel of humanitarian and development projects' implementation through risks assessment and access negotiation. On a personal level, it's physical fitness and mental care to operate at all times, especially in a crisis.


If you could create 3 changes overnight in this sector, what would they be?

The humanitarian security sector budget needs to be decoupled from the programs' funding to ensure minimum required resources that security advisors need to do their work. In the INGO sector, deployed expat staff are increasingly younger and given responsible positions, which sometimes in high-risk environments is, in my opinion, a reckless thing to do. This calls for experienced and mature leadership, especially in countries such as South Sudan, Nigeria, CAR, and so on. Young professionals that reach out to me communicate of confusion and frustration, not knowing where to start and how to go about it. Perhaps starters' jobs in the security field in the headquarters or even in the non-hostile environments would help them going forward.


If you could give advice to your younger you, what would it be?

Nothing is impossible. Keep working on it, keep networking and learning, and do not give up. Sometimes it may take a bit longer before you achieve what you desire, but in the end, things will fall in place.


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

Interestingly enough, here, I can think of five female managers and colleagues. When I worked in the development sector, my line manager was also a project director, negotiating contracts with national ministries and big donors, like the World Bank. It has been over ten years, yet I continue using her advice to this day. In South Sudan, two female colleagues impressed me with their view of and attitude towards security. One was an experienced security advisor, the other head of her organisation, and I learned what it means to say no and not be pushed around. And my new line manager has worked in corporate security for over ten years, and I'm excited to learn the ropes further from her.


Finally, Andy Marshall met me in 2013 and gave me initial information and advice, and later informed me about the job in South Sudan. We kept in touch over the years and met last time in 2018. I asked why he has helped me back then. He said he was also given support when he was starting out and that he was sure I'd help further, too. Sadly, we lost Andy this year, but his request lives on, and I'm helping younger (female) colleagues best I can.


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?

I'm discussing with a younger colleague who reached out to me via LinkedIn. Humanitarian jobs are posted on ReliefWeb and GISF websites; there are also websites for UN jobs. However, as she rightly points out, there are few jobs for young people (she already did two internships), and she struggles to get in. My advice to her is to continue learning and adding certificates to her profile and networking and making herself visible. We also had to clarify what security is and where she would like to work within the sector; therefore, understanding the industry and being specific also helps (e.g., political analysis, close protection, humanitarian field security, other). I will reach out to my contacts and forward her CV as I'm confident she's eager and capable and has potential. It takes being proactive and brave. And then there are platforms and communities as SheTravel, where I'd recommend reaching out to.

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