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Being Black in Cybersecurity: Conversations Can Lead to Lasting Change

Every time we discuss diversity and inclusion, we’re taking a small step on the path toward racial and social justice, not only in the STEM and technology industries but in the world at large.

This week, I joined the Information Technology Industry (ITI) podcast Download on Tech for a conversation with Gianna Williams, a Frederick Douglass Scholar at American University. Williams, one of five student leaders in her class to receive the scholarship, is pursuing a STEM career. Our conversation focused on the importance of Black representation in STEM fields and advice for Black students pursuing a career in tech.

It’s impossible to explore these topics without first addressing the broader social issues at play. Last year, the United States was jarred awake by several violent incidents involving Black people and the police. The ongoing emotional turmoil caused by these and numerous other events over the previous decades — many of which are underreported — hits hard. These incidents forced a public reckoning with racial injustice in America unlike any I have witnessed in my lifetime. We saw the power of people across all industries and all walks of life taking a stand against racial injustice. From members of Congress to professional athletes, a clear message for change was sent.

It is within this context that Williams and I discussed how important it is for each of us to examine our own body of work — and the roles we play in our families, our communities and our professions — to make sure we are all doing our part to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. I shared how, as a Black man in the cybersecurity industry, I’m often the only person of color in the room. I was once approached by an attendee at a major industry conference and asked if I was hotel security. At another industry event, I was mistaken for a rideshare driver. It was as if those roles were the only reasons someone who looks like me could possibly be part of the crowd or in these particular meetings.

One glance across the show floor at any major cybersecurity conference quickly reveals a sea of homogeneous male faces. According to the 2018 Global Information Security Workforce study — developed by the International Information System Security Certification Consortium (ISC)² and The Center for Cyber Safety and Education in partnership with Frost & Sullivan — Black or African American workers make up only 9% of the U.S. cybersecurity workforce. The (ISC)² also teamed with Spiceworks in 2018 on the Cybersecurity Workforce Study: Women in Cybersecurity, which reveals that women make up only 24% of the U.S. cyber workforce. It’s easy to feel “other” in such an environment. In fact, the 2018 Global Information Security Workforce study shows that 32% of cybersecurity professionals of color experienced some form of discrimination in the workplace. Unfortunately, far too many talented individuals choose to leave an industry they see as unsupportive. We must all work to stem this tide.

At Tenable, we strive to create a diverse and inclusive workplace for our team and do our part to move the needle on the industry’s diversity. Simply recruiting a diverse workforce is only the beginning. Retaining that talent is equally important. Tenable is working to create a culture of inclusivity in which employees feel supported and empowered and where being Black in cybersecurity doesn’t mean you’re the only one. Our efforts include Tenable’s Diversity and Inclusion Council, which I co-founded in 2018, and our Black@Tenable employee group. We apply the “Rooney Rule” in our hiring practices and we’ve recently signed on to Aspen Cybersecurity Group’s Workforce Pledge.

While we’re proud of these and other ongoing efforts, at the same time we recognize that there is always more to be done.

None of us can fix this problem alone. As an industry, we need to work together to make serious investments aimed at achieving full representation and strengthening a diverse pipeline of future STEM and cyber talent, which must include Black, Latino, Asian, women and LGBTQ communities. As a member of ITI’s Executive Committee, I am proud of the work the organization is leading to ensure tech and cyber become more diverse. I hope ITI’s work, combined with the new Biden Administration efforts to tackle racial inequity and support STEM initiatives, will drive lasting change. Embracing inclusiveness, and the diversity of thought that accompanies it, will not only strengthen the cybersecurity industry, but it will also make the U.S. more secure and competitive on the global stage.

Conversations like the one I had with Williams are small steps to drive change and spark dialogue around racial and social justice, especially in the STEM and technology industries. But I hope we don’t stop there. I hope that the cybersecurity industry will one day reflect our nation's rich diversity and be better for the effort. As Tenable pushes for change, we hope our industry peers will follow suit. Together, we can accomplish so much.

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James Hayes is the Vice President of Global Government Affairs at Tenable, an ITI member company.