UK GCHQ, BAE Systems seeking neurodiverse female talent to boost nation’s cybersecurity

Creative problem-solving skills and different perspectives found in neurodiverse talent are key to cracking codes, responding to threats, and making the UK’s security systems less predictable.

The UK Government’s intelligence, security, and cyber agency GCHQ and aerospace giant BAE Systems are looking to recruit neurodiverse females with unique skills to help improve the nation’s cybersecurity. The firms stated they are seeking creative problem-solving skills and different perspectives to ensure they have a mix of minds, crucial for cracking codes, responding to threats, and making the UK’s security systems less predictable.

This comes as a new survey of female coders found that whilst one in five women in the tech industry identify as neurodiverse, almost half have not made their employer or university aware due to perceived barriers around acceptance and career development. More inclusive policies and procedures are therefore required to better support and attract female neurodiverse talent.

Neurodiverse thinkers in demand, well-equipped for cybersecurity roles

Neurodiversity is becoming sought-after by technical teams, especially those requiring fast pattern recognition, sharper accuracy, and better attention to detail such as the cybersecurity industry, read the 2022 Annual Code First Girls Community Report. “Neurodiversity is key to keeping Britain safe,” stated Jo Cavan, director of strategy, policy, and engagement at GCHQ. “At GCHQ, some of our most talented and creative people have a neurodiverse profile – including dyslexia, autism, dyscalculia, and dyspraxia. Having a diverse team and a mix of minds better equips us to carry out our mission and tackle new and emerging threats posed by terrorists, criminals, and hostile states.”

Holly Foxcroft, head of neurodiversity in cyber research and consulting at Stott and May Consulting, agrees. “By nature, cybersecurity is diverse and creative, so our best asset is to supplement a diverse and creative workforce,” she tells CSO. “It has also been recognised in research that young neurodivergent individuals are engaging more with cyber and digital skills. They are self-learning and host impressive skill sets at a young age. As an industry, we need that talent!”

In this case, the emphasis of females is interesting, Foxcroft adds, as there is a higher chance of females being miss-diagnosed – partly due to the criteria for neurodivergent conditions based on a male populous and through gender stereotyping when females present symptoms of a condition.

The UK faces sophisticated nation-state attackers, individual and group-led hacktivism, and even the risks of relatively unsophisticated attackers capitalizing on misconfigured systems and human error, Nicola Whiting, co-owner of Titania Group and NeuroCyber advisory board member, says. “Each attack vector needs a wide variety of potential responses, and defence teams with herd mentality would be disastrous and potentially lead to cataclysmic failure. There are huge benefits to increasing neurodiversity and I wholeheartedly support recruitment drives for neurodivergent people.”

Whiting echoes similar sentiments as Foxcroft about this particular initiative’s specific focus on females, “Combining two underrepresented groups in technology (neurodivergent people and women) makes some logical sense. However, as a neurodivergent woman, making a specific “welcome mat” for us risks neurotypical/undiagnosed neurodivergent women and all our other “neurokin” feeling excluded, so I’m not sure it’s a route I’d have taken.”

GCHQ/BAE have a history of active recruitment to both wider groups and a comprehensive range of support and benefits designed to help neurodivergent folks (of all gender identities) thrive, Whiting adds. “So, whilst there’s currently a specific welcome mat out for neurodivergent female applicants, I’m certain the door is open for others too.”

Inclusivity key to attracting, supporting neurodivergents in cyber

The Code First Girls study of 1,200 female coders discovered that only one in five (18.7%) women who identify as neurodiverse feel supported in their current role. As a result, 42% have not told their employer or university about their neurodiversity over fears about being judged (45.3%) and impacting their progression (33.7%). What’s more, more than 80% of neurodiverse females admitted to experiencing imposter syndrome within their roles. “Companies need to review their policies, and procedures to be more inclusive of neurodiverse team members,” the study read, with data showing the development of supportive and inclusive work cultures will be imperative to attracting top talent during a national digital skills shortage, and ensuring the UK remains strong and secure.

“As neurodiversity in technical teams continues to be highly sought after by businesses, it’s imperative that they must also simultaneously build inclusive work cultures to support their employees that identify as neurodiverse,” stated Anna Brailsford, CEO of Code First Girls.

QCHQ, one of the biggest employers of neurodiverse people in the country, is doing commendable work in this area, implementing mind mapping software, noise-cancelling headphones and voice-to-text and text-to-voice software. QCHQ apprentices are also up to four times more likely to have dyslexia than those on other apprenticeship programmes. However, generally, there is still significant work to do.

“We need [more] success stories,” Foxcroft says. “It’s great to hear the initiatives are there, but we need to hear from the individuals themselves. Through fear of being discriminated against, many individuals hide their conditions if diagnosed. If you are undiagnosed, then hearing stories may help people recognise their own neurocognitive condition.” Also, the key point here is that the focus is not just on recruitment, and to retain and support a neurodiverse workforce, the culture must be neuro-inclusive, she adds. “By making working cultures neuro-inclusive (not just the recruitment side) you are removing more barriers and are enabling more individuals to feel comfortable to speak out, particularly woman.”

A panel of security experts will discuss “Taking the Next Step to Support Diversity & Inclusion in Cybersecurity” at the CSO 30 Conference & Awards on December 9. Register for the event for free today!

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