How do we diversify the cybersecurity industry?

Tech Nation, November 30, 2020 4 min read

There is no way to put this delicately: cybersecurity is a majorly male- and white-dominated industry. Although many founders realise how important diversity is for their business and for society in general, it’s often unclear how to put this into practice. So where do you start? 

Several sessions on the Cyber 2.0 programme tackled this topic, including “Young Leaders in Cyber” and the expert advice from our “Hiring, Firing and Talent Management” event. Here are the key takeaways.

Look to your young leaders

Sarah Wood, the chair and co-founder of digital advertising company Unruly, presented a step-by-step approach in our Young Cyber Leaders session. The practical advice, drawn from her book, “Stepping Up”, also prompted personal reflections and discussions among the group of young and diverse cyber leaders, all aiming to someday sit in the boardroom.

Sarah highlighted the importance of vision for leadership, defining it as focusing on the crucial ability to “lean in to change”.

“Vision is about having the ability to keep your eyes open and ask what you can do when so much is going on around you,” she explained. 

In other words, it’s important for founders and current leaders to enable young people to drive forward in areas where they can make a difference. Building a culture of inclusivity and support is essential to achieving this. 

Inclusion first, then diversity

At our  “Hiring, Firing and Talent Management” session, Pavneet Khurana, the People + Culture Partner at Unleashed, elaborated on how and why creating an inclusive culture would lay the groundwork for young leaders to step up.

“Inclusion should really come before diversity,” she said.

“Diversity is merely the coexistence of different people, but inclusion is people feeling accepted, trusted and supported.” 

“Businesses think they need to hire diverse people, but that’s only half the job. Diversity will only make the business thrive if your diverse employees are included, supported and feel safe enough to lean in. If this is not the case, they will feel excluded and leave.” 

Talk about the difficult things

Ensuring that employees feel safe and listened to at work also facilitates the difficult but necessary conversations about diversity, especially when hiring into predominantly male and white fields. Unfortunately, as Pavneet pointed out, the imbalance of gender and ethnicities often leads to women and people of colour feeling excluded, and rectifying this will involve critical self-reflection.

“We have to create openness, analyse our behaviour and see what makes us exclusive,” she said.

She also shared her tips for talking about gender and race in the workplace:

  • Admit that you don’t know everything. You’re not a diversity and inclusion expert, you’re a founder. 
  • Do say “I don’t know, but I’ll figure it out”
  • Don’t be scared to be vulnerable and acknowledge the gaps in your knowledge and understanding. Let other people supplement that knowledge for you.
  • Be aware of your unconscious biases and how they can spark certain behaviours. Think about why you think the way you do, the ways in which you’re biased, and the effect this has on how you treat people. 

Leadership values = company values

Back at the Young Leaders session, Sarah emphasised that passion alone doesn’t make a leader; motivation is just as important and has to be grounded in values. 

“Asking yourself why you want to be a leader is an important part of the process,” she said.

In practice, a founder’s values play a huge role in making a business inclusive and supportive. The second speaker at the “Hiring, Firing and Talent Management “session, Lorraine Metcalf, CPO at Quantexa, said: “It comes down to people at the top. If founders don’t believe it, they won’t live it.”

Lorraine, formerly the Chief People Officer at Zoopla, believes a founder can make or break an inclusive and safe environment, but responsibility also falls on the HR team to constantly push for inclusion. 

“We have to help founders and leaders understand the benefit, rather than looking at inclusion because it’s the “newest thing” or investors have demanded it,” she added. “There needs to be a strategic plan in place and commitment to it.”

Her tips for founders who don’t know where to start included: 

  • Start small – baby steps are better than no steps
  • Be clear about what you want to achieve and set goals
  • Invest in unconscious bias training to challenge each other and increase awareness.
  • Do the right thing for the right reasons. Your actions should come from a good place rather than trying to make your company look more attractive to investors or increase employee productivity.

Vulnerability creates improvement

In the Young Leaders session, Sarah addressed the need for fostering relationships and empathising with people around you. Making people feel “psychologically safe” is often overlooked in startups where there’s a culture of urgency much of the time. It takes courage to push back against those pressures. She said:

“It takes courage to have kindness; courage to fail; courage to ask silly questions; courage to be vulnerable; courage to admit you don’t know it all.”

Instilling these values into our Young Leaders is one thing, but what about current founders and CEOs? 

Sinead Daly, diversity and inclusion specialist at Beamery, also spoke about psychological safety in our session on hiring, noting that it’s essential for a scaling business to hire people who are the right fit, and look after them.

She said: “A lot of it comes down to creating psychological safety for everyone. If you have not made space for people to be involved and feel safe in your environment, it won’t work.”

Like Sarah, she believes that vulnerability is often the first step to creating a safe environment and addressing sensitive issues.

“We need to be having conversations about gender, race and mental health – but they’re not happening because people feel like they’re going to trip up and say the wrong thing or use the wrong terminology,” she added.

She shared her tips to push back against this fear of making mistakes: 

  • Put in the work to personally learn more about the issues
  • Set up time to read, research and educate yourself. 
  • Have conversations about inclusion on a grassroots level.
  • Set up unconscious bias training. 

Celebrate victories

Sarah’s final theme in the Young Leaders session was what she calls “victories”; not just measuring the impact of business achievements, but also celebrating it. 

“At Unruly the leadership team created habits that formed a community and a culture of celebration where everyone could feel included and rewarded”, she explained.

Sinead also touched on the importance of community in the hiring session. She recognised that often the community feeling arises from more informal settings, which have been difficult to create during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Even so, she said:

Creating informal moments for interactions is so important to make people feel included and accepted, especially in times of uncertainty.”

diversity, Cyber 2.0