Broadening the Art of the Possible Through Diversity

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During a recent conversation with an industry peer and great friend, he asked, “How did you make Cisco’s Security and Trust Organization so inclusive and diverse?” The question made me pause for a couple reasons. First, that he thought that one person alone could be behind such a broad team achievement. Second, how this question made me reflect to the early days of my career, and how women and diversity in the workplace have evolved. In some ways, we’ve taken leaps; in many ways, there’s still so much room to grow.

I was straight out of college, fortunate to work in the burgeoning industry with a number of pioneers such as Wietse Venema, Larry Wall, Rob Kolstad and Michele Guel. In fact, Michele hired me right out of Syracuse University onto her team at the NASA Ames Research Center, then helped to sand-off this precocious, 20-something-year-old’s sharp edges. She mentored and enabled me to hone my software and security skills around the supercomputing work we did at NASA. She was and continues to be a major influencer for me and across our industry.

The computer/network/information security industry of those days was still very much an exclusive men’s club. Aside from being my manager, Michele was also an industry luminary – a rarity that underscored the overwhelming gender and diversity imbalance of the time. Today, I have the privilege of continuing to work with Michele at Cisco, who is joined by many influential women shaping the current cybersecurity landscape – and its future.

I’m also privileged to work in a company that recognizes and champions not only women in this traditionally male-dominated industry, but also the value of diversity. Diversity of ideas. Diversity of perspectives. Diversity of backgrounds, approaches, and creative new ways of seeing the world that we wouldn’t have in the homogenous tradition. Every business, government agency, educational institution, organization and team can benefit from diverse viewpoints. Why? Because diversity of perspective, approach, and creative expression offers a differing worldview that opens the opportunity for creative problem solving and broadens the art of the possible.

I am excited about the future, though, as I see it, the future has already begun. World-disrupting global technology companies that I grew up admiring are now guided by female leaders. Women are making incredible strides in leadership positions at Cisco, bringing unmatchable skills and unique perspectives that are pushing the company into the next generation of business operations and innovation. Cisco has committed great efforts to attract female talent to this field, to follow the steps of leaders such as Michele, Sujata Ramamoorthy, Cypriane Palma, Rebecca Jacoby, Kelly Kramer, Yvette Kanouff… just to name a few of our incredible leadership team.

Cisco’s efforts go far beyond women who are entering the workforce. We’re fueling gender empowerment efforts, promoting equal opportunity and creating a fertile ground in which children, teenagers and aspiring graduate students can envision and pursue cybersecurity careers. It starts as early as their pre-teen years when young girls start to form dreams of their future. What greatness might await them? What mysteries will they solve? What will empower and motivate them to mine their intelligence and passion to impact our world for good?

I think of my daughter in these instances, who has great influence on how I envision and think about the future. What world are we creating to arm our children with the knowledge, skills, and passion to get where they want to go, unencumbered by prejudiced, outdated thinking and bias?

Everyone needs to own the answer. Women, men, parents, instructors and community leaders need to be accountable and work together to cement this change into our norms. It’s essential for us to engage in fruitful dialogue that will help us all better understand how to take action and break down the walls. Then we can grasp the opportunities to reach our maximum potential by placing our future in the skillful hands of powerful and diverse people and teams.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer and outspoken advocate for women’s empowerment, says that not knowing how to talk to each other about gender inequality creates an uncomfortable feeling, divesting us of the necessary actions to overcome the issue. Cisco’s Women in Cybersecurity community, Men for Inclusion network, Women of Impact conference, and our Executive Shadowing program are preludes to men embracing gender diversity as a pivotal component of success in cybersecurity. Initiatives such as the Women’s Society of CyberJutsu and Executive Women’s Forum are rallying our community to position equal opportunity at the forefront of industry standards.

Yet with all this progress, today women still represent just 11 percent of the cybersecurity workforce. We have a long way to go for talent, skills and character to overcome gender as a qualification, especially in leadership and executive roles.

How do we accelerate incremental progress and convert it to incredible progress? By taking action – as leaders, as contributors in the cyber field, and as individuals. If you’re reading this, you can make a difference no matter who you are. You can become a champion for equality – a leader who attracts the most qualified talent based on skills and character, not gender, race or beliefs.

Reinvent your approach to sourcing, attracting and hiring talent, and build your community through equality and diversity. If you’ve haven’t already done it, take the Multiplier Effect pledge. Apply the Multiplier Effect across your sphere of influence to inspire another, who can inspire another, and so on… this simple act is another of many ways we all can make a difference.

I challenge you to own this and challenge your people to follow suit – to be accountable and build on this trend to tap into your team’s full capabilities and reap the benefits of diversity. What part will you play? With whom are you willing to share these ideas? What can we accomplish if each of us influences another to commit to equal opportunity?

Beyond leadership positions, we must model change early and across industries. Share your passion for cybersecurity with young girls and help them see the value of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) curriculum. Find talented women across all job functions. Bring them into your organization and connect them with successful women who can illustrate the opportunities that the cybersecurity field offers.

To that end, Cisco will preview the 2018 Girls Power Tech (GPT) program during our Women of Impact conference in March. GPT is Cisco’s global STEM mentoring program that introduces adolescent female students from underserved and underrepresented communities to the numerous career opportunities available in the Tech sector. Together, we’ll create an even greater learning experience for these students, and give our female professionals the opportunity to mentor and inspire the next generation of leaders.

To answer my good friend’s question, “how did I make the organization so inclusive and diverse?” We decided to. There’s no secret strategy or incentive. There’s simply the decision. It’s a decision that proves itself again and again: diverse perspectives lead to better decisions. So, go after the best and brightest talent regardless of gender, race, color, or other attribute. Just decide to.

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Author: John N. Stewart
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