Even with all the well-known benefits of prioritizing diversity in the workforce—like higher profits and improved innovation—information technology (IT) and cybersecurity are still lagging other industries
Consider these (troubling) numbers: Women comprise just a quarter of technology workers, with even fewer Black (9%) and Latinx (7%) workers holding tech jobs, according to . And in cybersecurity, racial and ethnic minorities represent just 26% of the workforce, according to ISC2.
What makes these statistics related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) especially problematic—particularly for security leaders, who are already understaffed and facing a widening skills gap—is the fact that workers are increasingly attuned to DEI issues. A McKinsey survey found that 39% of respondents have turned down or chosen not to pursue a job because of a perceived lack of inclusion at the workplace. And it’s not just those in minority groups: 38% of those who do not identify as a minority responded the same way.
So how do you create a culture of inclusion? You get intentional about it, says Tony Wilkins, VP of IT at healthcare company Cantex.
Wilkins has spent nearly two decades building successful IT teams for enterprises in a variety of industries, including real estate, stock trading, healthcare, utility construction, and retail. He regularly searches out job candidates from different races, genders, and religions, but he doesn’t stop there. He says business leaders must also look for prospective hires with unexpected experiences, mindsets, and opinions. He’s a shining example of this, his own philosophy drawn from various journeys, including a stint in the U.S. Army and time spent working with the Girl Scouts.
Focal Point spoke with Wilkins about the IT industry, his efforts to prioritize DEI, and his hopes for developing more diverse teams.
When you first signed on at Cantex, did you foresee how much of your time would be spent tackling diversity issues?
I joined Cantex as an intentional hire. The company had a DEI challenge and wanted to have someone of color at the top of the food chain. They needed me, but they also needed my security acumen because they had been breached. A lot of people of color might take offense to that, but I tell them, “You have to take every opportunity offered to you just like everyone else to get to that position. Then when you’re there, make the difference.”
What have you noticed over the years about the way IT departments approach diversity in hiring?
I think IT groups talk about diversity a lot more [these days], but there hasn’t really been any significant change across the board. I go to technology conferences and can count on one hand the number of executives of color in the executive briefings. I also belong to a lot of executive groups. You can count on one hand the number of those leaders who are women, and even fewer are people of color. There’s still a lot of work to do.
Employers in general are prioritizing diversity, but it’s especially important in IT. Why is that?
IT is unique because it’s one of two groups in an organization that serve the entire company, the other being HR [human resources]. And for us to do our jobs well, we need to be diversified enough to deliver great customer service to all those people, because IT is really about serving the customer. That means we need different perspectives and different ways to solve a problem.
You need to be intentional about diversity, and when you are, you notice it really makes a difference.
You need people who are personable and can listen, and that happens when your team doesn’t look the same or think the same. You need to be intentional about diversity, and when you are, you notice it really makes a difference.
You need to take chances with individuals. Some of these people are working 10 times harder than others to get to where they are, and they need someone to give them an opportunity. I want to be that person, and there are many ways to give someone that opportunity.
What qualities do you look for in an IT hire?
In every IT team, there are layers. You have your leaders, your mid-tier people, and your Tier 1 folks. The latter are the ones who answer phones, work through problems, and ask questions. Tier 1 folks don’t need technical acumen—they need to be great at customer service, ask good questions, and have a willingness to learn. That’s what I look for when I hire for my team.
My philosophy has always been that if you came with an attitude to learn and work hard, I’d teach you the technical stuff.
For example, I recently had an office administrator in one of our departments who came to me and was interested in a customer service position. She said, “I know this would never happen, but I’m interested in this position.” I said, “Why would you say it would never happen?” I gave her an opportunity, and she’s doing great in that customer service role. I also had a woman who worked as a lawyer and wanted to learn networking. I brought her in as a Tier 1 person, mentored her, and she’s been with me through two companies.
My philosophy has always been that if you came with an attitude to learn and work hard, I’d teach you the technical stuff. It doesn’t matter who you are, whether you are young, old, Black or white, man or woman.
Or Girl Scout? You’ve been vocal about your involvement with Girl Scouts and the impact it’s had on your daughter.
My daughter is a lifetime Girl Scout. She’s earned her Bronze, Silver, and Gold awards, and all of her Summit Awards.
She has learned about different cultures and has been exposed to science and technology and nature through that program, and it’s helped her realize she can do anything. That’s what I want for others who come into IT.
Like that woman who said, “I know this would never happen, but….”
IT leaders have an opportunity to bring in different people that represent the people you serve, with different ideas and perspectives. Your goal as an IT leader should be to build a service culture, and to do that you need a diverse group challenging you to come out with the best solution.