Transgender Cyber Engineer Finds Workplace Support for Transition

June 2020
Willow Woycke
Willow Woycke

As a cybersecurity engineer with decades of experience, Willow Woycke has twice briefed members of the U.S. government at the Cross Domain Technical Forum, an annual event where people from federal agencies meet to share technical insights.

For the first briefing, Woycke presented as a man. But in 2019, after transition, she conducted her briefing as a woman. She doesn't think the change made much of an impact on her audience. But she noticed a difference.

"I think I was a better briefer after my transition," she says. "There's something about knowing people see me as I see myself that makes me more comfortable—and certainly happier."

For many people with gender dysphoria, finding happiness can be a long road—and one that greatly benefits from a supportive workplace. Woycke found that at MITRE.

"From the beginning, my department head was very helpful and positive," Woycke says. "And throughout the whole process, people told me how much they admired my bravery."

Building an Expertise in Internet Connectivity

Woycke joined MITRE in 1992 and spent about a year "not doing a very good job" at writing security plans. One of her mentors thought network security and firewalls might be a better fit and encouraged Woycke to participate in what was then a cutting-edge field.

It was the perfect match. Woycke began to develop her expertise in cross-domain solution engineering and identity credential and access management, building a reputation for success on several assignments. She helped establish firewalls for the intelligence community and Navy shipyards, develop identity data-sharing standards for the intelligence community, and create security architecture for the U.S. Mint.

She also taught courses on system accreditation and network security for our government sponsors and became co-manager of the Cross-Boundary Information Sharing (XBIS) laboratory. The lab is a demonstration facility for state-of-the-art cross domain solutions and information sharing practices.

"I left my last job after four years because I didn't think I had much more to learn there," she says. "But I've been at MITRE now for 28 years and have yet to run out of things to learn."

But even a rewarding career couldn't make up for the fact that Woycke was profoundly uncomfortable in the gender she was assigned at birth. Four years ago, with the help of a supportive family, she decided to transition. At the time, MITRE had few resources specifically targeted to helping her navigate the process. (That would change in 2018 when the company launched the MITRE Pride Council.)

That's when Woycke approached her department head, who put her in touch with HR. HR staff held a meeting with Woycke's department colleagues in December 2016 to explain the situation. Then Woycke left for the holidays. She returned in January presenting as a woman—and found deep support from both her coworkers and sponsors.

Taking Pride in Her Workplace

"Aside from my clothing and the way I presented, nothing really changed," she says. "I'm still the same person with the same knowledge and the same skills. But I may be even more committed to making the world a safer place."

That safer world includes the MITRE workplace. As chair of MITRE's Pride Council, Woycke provides resources to employees and a shoulder to lean on for any colleague who has a question or is in distress.

The Pride Council is an employee resource group for members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community. There are 35 members on the Council and about 140 people have asked to receive information on activities and resources. The goal is to foster a safe environment for any MITRE employee to be more fully themselves at work.

The council offers mentorship, staffs recruiting booths at events such as Capital Pride in Washington, D.C., and plans onsite observances for National Coming Out Day and Transgender Day of Visibility. (During 2020's coronavirus-related disruption of on-site work, many of these activities have gone virtual.)

Woycke has been frequently approached in the halls of MITRE's McLean, Virginia, campus by colleagues with transgender children or by coworkers still in the closet. Knowing how much she benefited from early support, she's determined that they have the same support.

"Since I'm out, they know I always have their back," she says. "And now people at MITRE know that the Pride Council is here to have their backs too."  

—by Twig Mowatt

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