May 05, 2017

How the intelligence services are diversifying

No longer just male and pale

GCHQ’s Nikesh Mehta on how the intelligence services are diversifying

We live in an increasingly complex world, one marked in recent years by terrorist attacks across Europe inspired by a group hidden in the recesses of the internet and the turmoil of Syria and Iraq. In such hazardous times, the UK intelligence community must ensure we have the right people to keep Britain safe.

Following the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, the government announced that an additional 2,000 intelligence officers would be hired across the Government Communications Headquarters, GCHQ, MI5 and the Secret Intelligence Service, or SIS, by 2020. This amounts to a 15 per cent rise in agency ranks – the biggest expansion since the 7/7 bombings.

But the number of new recruits joining our ranks is not the only factor that will determine our success in disrupting terrorist attacks or organized crime. Critically it is who those people are that matters – their experiences, backgrounds, perspectives, mindsets and approaches to the work we do.

This richness of our workforce is more than just a moral imperative for GCHQ and the other intelligence services − it is mission critical. That means we need to embrace diversity in all its forms, whether gender, race, sexuality or disability. To play our part in solving some of the hardest technology problems in the world, we need all talents and those who dare to challenge convention, think differently and be different. But that is easier said than done.

We face three big challenges in recruiting such a breadth of professionals. Firstly, as our mission changes so too does our demand for the best and brightest technologists – and it is here that we encounter difficulties in recruiting the best and brightest women. Britain, like other countries, has historically had a poor record of encouraging girls to take up STEM subjects – that is Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

The second challenge we face is competition. The UK intelligence services must compete with highly attractive and innovative technology companies for this diverse and skilled talent. Many of these companies enjoy a much greater degree of brand awareness than we do. Research shows that half of the UK population knows little or nothing about us.

Finally, we suffer from the ‘James Bond effect’, which skews perceptions and reinforces messages from pop culture that the intelligence agencies hand-pick recruits from Oxbridge and favour particular class brackets and backgrounds. As a result, many potential recruits, particularly from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds (BAME) simply rule themselves out of a career in intelligence.

Thankfully these challenges aren’t intractable. But they are complex and intertwined with cultural obstacles that will require sustained, collective action to overcome.

So what are we doing about it? While closing the gender gap in STEM requires effort at the national level, for our part, we are doing our bit to change the perception that cyber-security is ‘just for boys’. More than 8,000 school girls aged 14-15 took part in our CyberFirst Girls online competition, with the winning team crowned at the end of March.

We are working hard to promote ourselves as the employer of choice for top BAME graduates amid tough competition and challenge the ‘James Bond’ perception. In November 2016, six of our BAME staff collaborated with the BBC on a ground-breaking radio documentary. They talked honestly about their experiences and were able to tackle head on some of the perceptions that we know hold back their peers from joining us. I took part in a live on-air Q&A on the BBC’s Asian Network directly answering questions posed by the public and we are starting to see the impact of this effort in our current recruitment round.

We’re also establishing ourselves as a world-class employer for LGBT staff. This year, for the first time, GCHQ featured in Stonewall’s top 100 employers in their Workplace Equality Index. This is quite an achievement when you consider that up until the 1990s homosexuals were banned from working in GCHQ.

When we projected rainbow colours on to our headquarters in 2015 to mark International Day Against Homophobia, there was a surge of interest on our recruitment website. This was because people looked at it and thought ‘that’s an organization whose values I share and where I’ll probably be happy working’. They would be right − it’s a great place to work no matter your background.

While we should be proud of the progress we have made, we recognize that there is a long road ahead. GCHQ is committed to playing our part in ensuring the intelligence agency is diverse and inclusive. It is only by encouraging diversity of thought and emboldening the richness of our workforce that we will be successful in our mission to keep the people of Britain safe

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