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Tech needs to scrap ‘warfare analogies’, says Cisco’s chief privacy officer

Cisco’s chief privacy officer talks about the language surrounding cyber security, how firms should be focused on growing tech creativity, and achieving equality inside and outside of the industry

To create an inclusive environment in which diversity can thrive, businesses need to move away from using “warfare analogies”, says Michelle Dennedy, vice-president and chief privacy officer at Cisco.

This is especially apparent in the cyber security space where tackling hackers or cyber crime is often characterised as a fight, war or battle.

But Dennedy points out this does not create an inclusive environment and, by doing this businesses, are stunting their chances of building a diverse workplace and putting themselves at risk.

“If you’re trying to move into a diverse world, do all of us want to walk into a battlezone or are some of us builders, co-operators or collaborators? I’ve talked to a lot of young women in middle school or high school when they start to drop out of technical fields, and I think that’s part of it,” she says.

At Cisco Live 2017, Apple CEO Tim Cook said the “lone wolf” stereotype used to describe hackers and cyber criminals is no longer relevant.

Dennedy agrees, and says businesses should build a diverse community to protect themselves against the generation of hackers who now act as a community as opposed to being individual “nuisance people who are trying to gatecrash”.

“Who are the attackers, what is their character and how do we address that? You need to have this diverse approach – take the enemy as they are today and look at where they’re going. They’ve industrialised, there’s real money on the table, it’s not just, ‘Steal a credit card, buy some CDs and run away’,” she says.

Not only are hackers becoming more organised but there is more at stake as organisations collect more customer data.

“Now [attackers are] nation states, and it’s corporate data [at risk] and 20 years of innovation that can go out of your door in a blink,” says Dennedy.

Many large organisations have reported cyber attacks and breaches over the past couple of years, bringing security to the forefront of the business agenda, with many saying diversity is one way to solve cyber security skills gaps.

The importance of creativity in tech  

Part of ensuring that organisations keep up with current technology trends is to employ younger people who may have a different perspective than some of the old guard, says Dennedy.

“There’s something else out there, and I can’t imagine what it is yet because I’m old. We need to bring new people in to say, ‘Let’s try this’ or ‘Let’s fail this way’, and move onto the next thing,” she says.

Creativity and knowledge of technology can be equally important in encouraging younger people to join organisations, especially in the technology space. But is enough being done early on to encourage this creativity in tech?

Many believe there is too much emphasis put on coding at a young age, leaving kids, parents and teachers unaware of what a tech role entails.

“Coding is important to understand as a foundation, but I don’t know how to code anymore,” says Dennedy. “But do I understand how architectures work? Enough to know how to ask the right questions.”

Dennedy says it’s important to have people on a team who “don’t think the same as hardcore engineers” to spark different conversations and discussions, ultimately creating more innovative solutions to problems.

But these creative tech people are currently under-represented, and Dennedy believes the industry is divided into “Steve Jobs and other”.

“The tech industry always chooses the same man as [the one to] bring design back to the table. It is sad that we have eight billion souls running around and we keep coming back to one guy,” she says.

When help comes from the top

Despite ongoing efforts to encourage more women into the technology industry, there remains a small percentage in top positions, and problems such as wage gaps still blight those who have broken through the glass ceiling.

Many believe since the top spots in the technology industry are predominantly held by men, we need men to step up and help others enter the sector for diversity to increase at any kind of pace.

Dennedy says if people “simply replace themselves”, the rate of diversity increase will be painfully slow. Instead, we should all be required to “pull up” someone by sponsoring and developing them to ensure they can continue to the top of the sector.

“In half a generation we would have closer parity, just from helping one other person. Women have said, ‘We’ve leaned in, we’ve been laying on the floor begging – it doesn’t help if we don’t have male advocates’,” she adds.

But Dennedy is aiming for complete parity between men and women in the workplace, where men can benefit from the same flexibility as women – and female-dominated industries must also aim to increase diversity.

Dennedy says the modern world and workplace “expects a lot” from young men, with an increase in workplace parity and an emphasis on social media leading young men out of their depth.

“We want to be these fierce wonder women – we’re going to make more money than [men] in some cases – and we want [young men] to be masculine but we don’t know what that means,” she says.

“Diversity is going to look very different 20 years from now. View the perch you sit on at executive level as a way to change the lives around you for more junior people, whether they’re men or women or black or white or Asian or anything.”

Can we have work-life balance?

When there are more women in top tech roles, Dennedy says she hopes they “aren’t so burnt out”, and describes the many women she has met are “exhausted” from trying to juggle too much at once.

Dennedy has even met women who have turned down high-flying roles in organisations because they don’t believe they would be able to give the job 100%.

“My driver is that I want to change the world – that’s exhausting, and a lot of women get to a certain point where they think they’re making a lot of money but they’re not changing the world anymore.”

Often, Dennedy says, this could be solved by bringing your whole self to work as this helps to create a better balance between work and home – no one should feel pressured to be perfect 100% of the time, but women often feel they have to prove themselves.

“Women behave a certain way at home and I wanted to be a cookie-baking, PTA-going, soccer mom and change the way we look at privacy as a fundamental human right globally. It just became really unsustainable, but I looked at myself preparing for a keynote and I thought, ‘That’s me’,” she says.

Balance is also needed in the workplace between team members to create an innovative, productive environment, and Dennedy emphasises the need for real balance at work and at home.

“We can’t just endlessly give and be the perfect mum, the perfect executive, the perfect boss and the perfect wife – it’s very difficult,” she says.

“How do you show up to work as a whole person? It’s not about us simulating man-like aggression or going into the battle field, and it’s not a matter of men suddenly dressing in fluffy cardigans. We really need that beautiful conflict of nature,” she adds.

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