Supporting Cisco’s Women in Cyber initiative is incredibly important – to me personally and for the company. It’s all about the most important aspect of problem solving: bringing diversity of thinking to a team and to a problem—unique perspectives that we would otherwise not have because of the biases we bring from our own backgrounds.

I learned that first hand. My mom continually encouraged me to overcome the challenge of being legally blind (without my glasses) by learning to creatively problem solve; the CFO I supported in my first professional IT job taught me a lot about being service-oriented and working to benefit the business; Rebecca Jacobi provided mentoring and friendship as I took on new roles and responsibilities within Cisco. Perhaps the most important impact of these and other female professional relationships I’ve enjoyed has been that they offered me different ways to look at and solve problems. That’s carried me to some incredible opportunities and accomplishments.

I’ve always been drawn to security-related problems. My curiosity led me to learn the fundamentals through hands-on experience at jobs early in my career.  When I came to Cisco, I started as a network engineer, and was fortunate to later lead the TAC and then the Global Governments Solutions Group. Security has always been an important part of this work. Now, with our advanced security research efforts, I lead a team who collaborates with researchers all over the world on technology advances that help Cisco better defend networks. I’m also privileged to be an advisor to the U.S. government on technology and security matters. This broad vantage point gives me insight into what’s needed to build the cyber workforce of tomorrow.

From that purview, I can see that the gender gap in security is unfortunately real. We have the problem of not having enough females in STEM in general, and that yields a gap in security. I’m especially concerned about female undergrads and high school students in STEM, because they tend to gravitate to other domains like natural sciences or biology rather advanced mathematics that is important to things like encryption and quantum computing. Even within the research environment, I see senior-level female colleagues at other institutions lacking more women on their research teams – not because of bias, but because there simply isn’t a talent pool of qualified women to draw from.

I believe this situation is rooted in the primary and secondary education system, where we’re not sufficiently encouraging girls and women into the field. For example, in cryptography, which is my area of specialty, the required deep level math is not being taught to enough women. Yet these skills will be increasingly important for the ongoing critical development of Machine Learning. While some women will be drawn to this work, others may be reluctant; we need to actively demonstrate that cyber talent needs extend well beyond deep math to a breadth of roles that demand all available talent. The imperative is urgent.

So what can be done about this? I strongly believe that cyber and associated skills should be integrated into curricula earlier. For example, we are proud to be sponsoring the GenCyber Summer Camps education program, to be held at the University of Texas (UT), Austin during the summer of 2018. The program will orient underprivileged high school children toward computer science, with the goal of giving them a leg up on cyber-oriented scholarships to UT. The program is being championed by Jennie Kam on my team, who got involved with the national effort two years ago.

We must incent women to get involved in the cyber field; it offers satisfying experience and great intellectual stimulation.  I believe in mentoring; for me as a leader, it’s very gratifying, and I always get more than I give. I insist on diversity in staffing activities: diverse interview teams to assess job candidates; diverse hiring professionals in HR; and having people with diverse perspectives make decisions on rewards and promotions. This can at times be difficult to do given the pool of incumbents available to engage in the process. But if you don’t have multiple perspectives on a decision-making advisory group, you end up with biases and limitations in the ways to think about things. Leaders have to be dogmatic about this and make sure it’s being done.

Of course the cyber talent shortage requires skilled women and men to fill much-needed jobs. We need to balance encouraging and incenting women to enter the field with cultivating skills of their male counterparts. I firmly believe that if the opportunity is presented, over time there will be a natural tendency for the balance to come. I don’t worry about forcing it; we need to force the opportunity and the diversity dividend will be paid.

Nothing will make the bad guys stop attacking our systems. We need to think of more clever things to do to beat them. That will take all of the diverse thinking and talent we have.


Gregory Neal Akers

No Longer with Cisco