Creating a more inclusive environment for LGBT cyber talent

Some LGBT cybersecurity workers don’t feel comfortable being open about their sexuality or gender identity at work. So what can companies do to create LGBT-supportive workspaces?
Young Millennial Hippie Woman Sitting On Balcony Using Laptop. Lgbtq Rainbow Flag On Background.

For people from many traditionally underrepresented backgrounds, discrimination and lack of inclusion can make working in the cybersecurity industry challenging, and this is reflected in the relatively low percentage of women and ethnic minority workers in the sector. Yet, a report published by KPMG and the National Cyber Security Centre revealed that 10% of cyber professionals identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB), far higher than the national average of 2.2% reported in 2018. 

There is no simple explanation for this, but Berkeley Wilde, executive director of diversity and inclusion consultancy The Diversity Trust, believes that LGBT people are drawn to the cyber industry “because they know other members of their community work in the sector. The disconnect is in knowing that the sector attracts other LGBT people, yet discrimination still occurs.” Diversity and inclusion, it seems, don’t go hand in hand.

The KPMG report bears this out, with 15% of gay and lesbian and 29% of transgender respondents saying they have experienced discrimination at work; this can include anti-LGBT language and being misgendered or excluded from social events. So what practical steps can organisations take to make their workplaces a safe space to be openly LGBT?

Wilde believes the first step is to assess organisational policy. “For example, it’s important to make sure maternity and paternity leave are inclusive of LGBT people. All policies need to be very explicitly inclusive of trans people and cover same-sex relationships,” he adds. 

Reassessing recruitment and retention processes is also important. This can mean using representative interview panels, including LGBT staff members wherever possible. Conducting exit surveys with LGBT employees can also provide valuable insights.

Acknowledging and celebrating events like Pride Month and the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia can also make LGBT workers feel more comfortable and supported. However, it’s crucial that these initiatives are not relegated to a single month, but instead celebrated throughout the year and accompanied by staff training.

Cyber skills gap 

Retaining a highly skilled and diverse workforce is essential in cybersecurity, especially as the industry continues to face an unprecedented skills gap of around 3 million qualified workers, with 64% of professionals saying their organisation has been affected by this shortage. 

The 2020 (ISC)² Cybersecurity Workforce Study highlights the business need to ensure LGBT staff feel comfortable and secure in their jobs. Cybersecurity businesses that fail to address the challenges faced by LGBT employees stand to lose out in the competition for talent, as offensive comments and discrimination drive high-quality talent to other industries where the environment is more inclusive.

Rebecca Fox, founder of digital and technology consultancy Gray Blue, has experienced both homophobia and sexism during her time in the technology sector, and understands the difference a supportive culture can make.

“I came out in my late 20s, in an organisation where it was relatively safe to be open about your sexuality,” she says. Creating ‘safe spaces’ at work for LGBT people requires businesses to improve their internal processes and policies, but it doesn’t need to be complicated. For members of the LGBT community, a ‘safe space’ can simply mean being treated with respect and feeling accepted and comfortable discussing their personal lives without judgment.

Role models and representation 

The ability of positive representation to empower LGBT staff and attract prospective employees should not be undervalued. “When you’re in an organisation where you see a role model like you, you’re inclined to stay. You’re not the token LGBT person or token woman, you’re just included,” says Fox. “Many companies have a ‘cookie-cutter’ view of what a person in cybersecurity is – and it isn’t inclusive. It goes without saying that having a diverse workforce can better reflect your customer base.”

Encouraging employee confidence 

A 2020 report from McKinsey & Company titled LGBTQ+ Voices: Learning from Lived Experiences revealed that while 80% of senior leaders were ‘out’ at work, only 32% of junior employees felt comfortable being open about their sexuality.

“What this tells me is the more you progress in your career, the more comfortable and confident you become about being open about your sexuality,” explains Belton Flournoy, director at technology consulting practice Protiviti and co-founder of its UK LGBT+ group. “A consistent thing you find across many LGBT people, including myself before I came out, is a lack of confidence.”

Constantly policing your actions to avoid ‘outing’ yourself is common among younger cyber staff and often results in them avoiding drawing attention to themselves. “You spend so much energy making sure you say the right things, you tend to hurt the journey to build ‘authentic relationships’ and be less real with people,” explains Flournoy. “When I stopped having to lie, all of a sudden I formed new relationships with most of the people I worked with because I could be myself,” he explains. And, crucially, from a business perspective, if employees are using their energy to hide elements of their identity, employers aren’t getting their best. “When I fully came out of the closet, my productivity shot through the roof, all my brainpower was focused on helping my clients get the best solution, and I wished I could tell others to try to get there sooner.

Tracking diversity data 

According to Flournoy, every firm would benefit from recording issues around confidence levels at work. “If we’re looking to drive meaningful change within our organisations, we need to ensure we’re tracking the right information and data.” Protiviti typically reports on diversity across the organisation, including leadership positions, and shares results at its ‘all-employee’ meetings. “This continued transparency is what allows the firm to see where we can come together to improve gender and racial diversity at all levels,” adds Flournoy.

By using diversity data, organisations can spot where they are succeeding or failing when it comes to making LGBT employees feel a valued part of the company. This is the best possible first step towards building a more inclusive culture that both attracts and retains vital talent.