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UN’s International Day of Tolerance is a good reminder that workforce diversity should be 365-day goal

Since 1996, United Nations members have commemorated Nov. 16 as International Day of Tolerance. As a word, tolerance can mean different things to different people and cultures. The UN defines tolerance as: “respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human.” I define it slightly differently. To me, tolerance is acceptance. Tolerance is inclusion. Tolerance is humanity. Tolerance is letting people be and live authentically as they choose.  

Being able to live authentically is key. It’s about creating an environment for everyone to fit in and feel a sense of belonging. In a way, this means obfuscating the “standard” and stop paying attention to the degrees of variation from it.  Tolerance is a step one in that process and a critical step toward a more diverse and tolerant world.  

But if this is the goal, I say we have lots of work left in promoting this within our workforce, especially in the cybersecurity industry. I wrote extensively about this in a blog last year on why diversity matters so much to create stronger cybersecurity organizations. I pointed out that cybersecurity as a technology is multi-faceted and constantly changing. So, it would make sense that a highly diverse organization would provide different perspectives and more creative solutions to these challenges. 

Cybersecurity workforce by the numbers 

Even in the face of this logical goal of creating more diverse workforces, legacy recruiting, education, and even hiring practices are holding us back as an industry. I’ll look at one workforce populations specifically, women in cybersecurity. Currently, women constitute less than 25 percent of the workforce in cybersecurity. Of course, this is inclusive of all roles in cybersecurity meaning that I think it’s fair to say that the percentage of women in technical cybersecurity roles (e.g., software and hardware engineering) would be much lower. That’s discouraging, especially when there are still more than 700,000 cybersecurity positions that remain unfilled, many of them being high-paying roles. 

Perhaps the more important question is “why?” The International Information System Security Certification Consortium (ISC2) commissioned a study to examine this issue closely and came up with some important conclusions that I’ll summarize. 

  1. Women, especially when they are girls, tend to self-select out of pursuing cybersecurity careers because they believe they have to be “much more accomplished than men in order to get equal treatment”.  
  2. Cybersecurity work itself has an image issue that may not be appealing to women with its intense war-room and cloak-and-dagger, spy-vs-spy metaphors. I have personally experienced this myself and wrote in my earlier blog about my belief that I had to act like just “one of the guys” just to fit it. Perception or not, the feelings are real, and we must acknowledge it as an issue. 
  3. Though not limited to the cybersecurity industry, it is a reality that women tend to be paid less and get promoted more slowly compared to their male counterparts. This is a contributing factor for women tending to leave the field more quickly than men. Of the three issues I’ve listed, I believe this is the most fixable. The first step of any solution is to understand that there is a problem. In other words, if the cybersecurity industry is going to be more tolerant and diverse, we have to understand what intolerance and lack of diversity looks like. 

The path towards more tolerance and diversity 

In promoting the International Day of Tolerance, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon listed three ways we as a global society can be more tolerant: education, inclusion, and opportunities. As it happens, those are also exactly the approaches required to create more diverse workforces.  

Of the three, I believe education (the earlier the better) is key as it’s foundational to being able to take advantage of inclusion and opportunities. Yes, we must continue to invest in STEM education and encourage more girls and minorities to take part. But the harder challenge is to somehow overcome the perception issue among large parts of these populations that the STEM field is not for them.  

I believe that will require an investment in time and interaction in the form of mentoring and community outreach. For example, the Cisco Women in Technology employee resource organization that I’m proud to be the executive sponsor for, started a coding bootcamp targeting underrepresented populations. There will be many more bootcamps next year including weeklong camps in the summer. We need more of this, much more and I know there are many companies in cybersecurity who have similar aspirations and programs. 

So, on this International Day of Tolerance, I ask my fellow cybersecurity professionals to at least think of ways they can influence someone in an underrepresented population to explore a career in the STEM field including cybersecurity. Take part in local volunteer activities at a school, especially in an inner-city one, like the kind that the Cisco Networking Academy is renowned for. Join and be an active participant in one of many cybersecurity organizations and affinity groups. Become a sponsor and a mentor to a girl or a minority and help encourage them to get ready to join this exciting and lucrative industry. 

But whatever you do, get started. Author and activist Rachel Cargle spoke to us earlier this year as part of our Black History Month celebration about what it means to show up with purpose toward addressing many injustices that still exist today. There’s an incredible disconnect here between humanity and dignity and all of this stuff in the country, and that should hopefully push you to action,” she said. Indeed, as these are issues that have existed for decades, and we will not solve them in a day, a month, or even a year. But if we don’t start, I’m afraid that the diversity issues that I’ve highlighted will be much the same in the International Day of Tolerance for years to come. 

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