How cybersecurity businesses are welcoming neurodiverse talent

If you want to improve productivity and increase innovation, Nicola Whiting MBE says recruiting and supporting neurodivergent employees is a great way to do it.

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Neurodiversity’s importance in organizations is gaining steam, with many large, tech-rich enterprises like Ford, IBM and Microsoft reforming their HR processes to ensure they recruit and retain neurodiverse talent.

Neurodivergent people have conditions that mean they think differently than others, for example, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia.

Neurodivergent people may be of especially high value in cybersecurity if successfully recruited and retained.

I asked Nicola Whiting MBE, co-owner of Titania Group and NeuroCyber board member,  why neurodiversity matters in cybersecurity and how businesses can be more inclusive and supportive of neurodivergent employees.

Gemma: Why is neurodiversity important?

Nicola: Neurodiversity – where you have many different thinking styles and perspectives – increases the range of ideas in a business, which means competitive advantage in innovation and resilience. It’s the opposite of groupthink – when everyone has similar ideas, so businesses stagnate and make poor decisions.

More personally, being autistic, I’m saddened by how many brilliant neurodivergent people struggle to get jobs in our industry, despite the known skills gap. JPMorgan Chase reported in 2021 that neurodivergent employees in certain tech roles may be up to 140 percent more productive than neurotypical colleagues. However, businesses still struggle to build inclusive practices that let all neurotypes thrive. I want to help change that.

You’re on NeuroCyber’s advisory board. What are its aims?

NeuroCyber’s founder and CEO, Mike Spain, has a neurodivergent son. He saw too few opportunities for neurodivergent people in cybersecurity and wanted to change that.

NeuroCyber believes in inclusion at every level – over half the board are neurodivergent. We’re driven to improve career outcomes for neurodivergent colleagues, enriching the sector and reducing the UK’s cyber skills gap.

Why does the cybersecurity industry especially benefit from neurodiversity?

In cybersecurity, everything we do is either innovation – creating new things – or resilience against attack and business threat. Neurodiversity is essential for both. For example, if you follow the principle ‘to defeat an attacker, you must be able to think like an attacker,’ you need a variety of neurotypes because attackers are similarly varied.

What about in leadership? Should boards and C-suites consider neurodiversity?

Absolutely. Boards should be especially wary of groupthink. Many innovative, well-known entrepreneurs are neurodivergent, like Richard Branson, who is dyslexic, and Elon Musk, who is autistic. There are also many neurodivergent industry leaders who don’t disclose the fact because they fear stigma.

Which cyber organizations are ‘doing it right’ with neurodiversity?

One organization I admire is Genius Within, founded by Dr. Nancy Doyle. They believe in creating inclusive workplaces, allowing neurodivergent people to thrive and maximize their talents and strengths.

What’s your advice for companies that want to become more diverse and inclusive of neurodiversity?

Follow the principle of ‘nothing about us without us’ (NAUWU.) Teams that can drive their processes and practices are more engaged and have better outcomes.

People know what they need to thrive, so you’ll likely get positive, productive outcomes if managers support individual needs and working preferences.

You should also acknowledge that people have unconscious bias that draws them to prefer working with people that look and think like themselves. You can see it in the questions we prioritize in recruitment like, “Will this person fit with the team?” rather than, “What new skills and talents will they bring, and how will we support them?”

There’s plenty of fantastic advice on reducing bias in hiring and retaining team members, much of which is free. Companies needn’t look far to learn how to improve their processes, practices and culture for greater diversity and inclusion.

What will organizations gain if they take action on neurodiversity?

Taking action on neurodiversity can mean benefits in terms of growth, innovation and resilience to risk. You’ll also gain the personal benefits of inclusive, welcoming work environments. It always pays to diversify.

Opinions reflect those of the expert. Interview has been edited for clarity.

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About authors

Gemma Milne is a technology and science writer who specializes in biotechnology, space, energy, health and quantum computing for publications including Forbes, BBC, The Guardian and Quartz. She is also the co-host of the Science: Disrupt podcast and will soon publish her first book about hype in science and technology. She's a fan of books, powerlifting, travel and the occasional gin and tonic.