All the voices at the table: the benefits of diversity

A diverse group of people in the workplace

Written by Nicola Whiting, CSO of Titania

“If you are sitting in a decision room and everyone looks like you and thinks like you, you will come up with a less-than-good answer. We need all voices at the table to make the best decisions.”
Michelle Obama

I’d agree, the benefits of diversity are far reaching (especially in terms of bottom line profits and fresh ideas) – I’d also say that if everyone at the boardroom table looks the same as you – you’re doing diversity wrong.

If everyone on the board is from a similar background (as is very typical in the often Eton-educated UK government) they can become victims of ‘group think’. This isn’t conducive to generating the types of new ideas that will grow a company – or a country. Diversity makes us stronger, more resilient and more capable of accelerating a business, and that’s beginning to be recognized by both investment houses and large corporations.

So what does a truly diverse board look like? Well it is likely to include different genders, races and backgrounds and as a result, multiple ways of thinking. Different questions will be asked, and the answers will vary widely. In the long term, these diverse opinions will lead to a broader product and ultimately, better bottom line profits.

There are many different elements to diversity, each of which offers its own benefits. Take the example of Auticon, an IT consultancy that employs 150 autistic people across the UK, USA, Germany, France and Switzerland. The firm has found that employing neurodiverse teams opens up new perspectives and significantly improves work output.

Auticon is not the only company realising the benefits of employing neurodiverse candidates. Investment bank JPMorgan Chase has hired 70 autistic employees over the last few years. The results speak for themselves: The firm says job performances have been “stellar”, with the majority of autistic employees achieving 48% to 140% more work than their colleagues.

Of course, gender diversity is also an important part of the workforce. US firm Frontier Communications Corporation is among the 100 tech and telecoms companies which has three or more women on the board. CEO Dan McCarthy says he has “seen the benefits first-hand” of having a more diverse board when tackling tough issues.

Meanwhile, Cisco is seen to be one of the largest companies in the US actively supporting movements within diversity and equality. This process has come from the top down through its board members. Our own company Titania, supports diversity in all forms and welcomes the work technology giants such as Cisco, Google and Microsoft are all doing in this area.

Gender diversity is an increasingly recognised issue in technology and science. According to the 2017 Frost and Sullivan report, only 10% of the cyber security workforce are women. Around 40% of women leave jobs in science and technology – twice more than the figure for men – and one third cite the working environment as central to their decision.

Societal or industry bias can still be a barrier to career growth for women and it is evidenced in many subtle ways – including language. Someone described as ‘challenging’ could be viewed in a positive or negative light (dynamic vs difficult) and gender bias can tip the balance. As much as the world is changing, many women still feel they have to work harder than their male counterparts (for the same recognition) and face being labelled as ‘hard-nosed’ or ‘difficult’ as the price of success.

The industry knows this is a problem, and multiple initiatives already exist aiming to encourage more women to enter, and stay in, our sector. One high profile example of an organisation fighting for diversity in cyber security is the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC). Half of the firm’s senior management are female, and one third of employees are women – a figure the NCSC says it’s determined to improve.

The benefits are clear, but it’s also important to consider that diversity starts from the top – and there are challenges when turning this into reality.  Unconscious bias is one of the major culprits preventing diverse boards: Research shows people tend to hire people similar to themselves – and it’s often completely unintentional.

People don’t like to think they are biased, but society is full of messages that shape our self-image and future. Parents and carers, often give children certain toys based on gender.  Girls are given soft toys or toys that encourage interactive play (teddies, dolls and tea sets) while boys get hard toys that encourage problem solving (bricks, trains and construction sets). This may give girls an advantage in building early language skills but at the cost of spatial awareness and problem solving. The building blocks of an interest in STEM subjects may literally be ‘building blocks’

Diversity is something many firms strive for, but articles portraying stereotypes make things that much harder. We have all heard of gender and racial stereotyping, but with neurodiverse candidates, this can be less obvious and views must be constantly challenged or it will become accepted thinking.

For example, a recent article in Time Magazine was entitled ‘The body language mistakes you don’t realize you’re making at work’.  Items on the list included: fidgeting, tense expressions & not making eye contact.  These were interpreted as signs an employee was disinterested, angry or unengaged – however in a Neurodiverse person (e.g. Autism, ADD) the same body language, may mean the exact opposite!

So, what’s the solution? The first step is to realise that we don’t have a choice about being biased: it’s simply how the brain works. As primates, humans are pre-programmed to form ‘troops’ (to prefer people who look and feel like us). It is part of our leftover evolutionary behaviour – but to gain the benefits of diversity, we must strive to overcome it.

Part of this is about making moves to ensure diversity on boards and ‘lead from the top down’. Small things can make a huge difference. At Titania, we have changed our job adverts to include specific language welcoming neurodiverse candidates and removed ‘team player’ references which may intimidate people who struggle with social interaction.

It’s also important to have a positive outlook.  The cyber security industry is predisposed to focusing on the negative (it’s how we find security holes). We know there is a talent shortage, it’s been well publicised – but people are realizing increasing diversity could help solve this.

There are many brilliant and diverse people employed in ‘cyber’ – many of whom work behind the scenes. Highlighting diverse role models (of all types), celebrating their successes and demonstrating best practice in supporting their needs, will encourage more talented people into our industry.

As a Neurodiverse ‘woman in cyber’, I found a home in Titania. With the support of our CEO (now my husband) and a committed team, we’ve built a strong company, able to support diversity at all levels. Our board is half female and our backgrounds and thinking types vary widely.

In the process, we’ve learnt to respect and explore wide-ranging viewpoints and opinions, we’ve discovered new options, solved key industry problems and accelerated our growth.

I would like to leave you with one final thought:

“If you truly believe that people are your company’s most precious asset – then it pays to diversify.”

This article by Nicola Whiting was originally published here.

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