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Solving the Mystery of Cyber Diversity

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The cyber-sleuths were tearing their hair out. My cybercrime detection company had been called in by a financial services site plagued by stolen bank accounts. So far we’d determined that the problem resided with the password hint process: somehow, criminals were able to supply the answers to then standard password hint prompts like “what year were you born?” and “where did you go to high school?”

But as quickly as we identified and shut down one batch of fake users, more would emerge, draining accounts and panicking the site’s customers. Our client’s costs were mounting, yet no one could figure out how the intruders were collecting so much accurate personal information about its customers. These bits of personal history were widely dispersed among various public and private databases. How were the hackers zeroing in so fast?

Before we get to the answer—let’s back up for a moment. How did you imagine the above scene—the cyber-detectives trying to crack this case? If you are picturing mostly men, your mind’s eye is seeing clearly: the cyber-security industry is about 88 percent  male. But they were not the ones who solved this puzzle.

The puzzle was solved by the women on the team, and the answer was this: the hackers were getting information from Facebook accounts, which in those days most people kept public. Was it coincidence that the women cracked the code? Probably not. Studies show that women use Facebook much more than men, so they may have been better positioned to make the inference. I saw situations like this again and again: a diversity of viewpoints among my staff meant we solved more problems faster, with innovative reasoning and a rich pool of reference points.

As a woman entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, I knew well the downsides of homogeneity: the comments demeaning women; the lack of opportunities for anyone not white and male; the steady drumbeat of arrogance and self-congratulation among young white men bursting with privilege, even as some of their enterprises failed spectacularly.  But before I sold my company, Silver Tail, I also learned something new: the enormous upside, and value of, of diversity.

The effective cyber crime-fighter must psychologically reverse-engineer the behavior of a total stranger. After a security analyst detects unusual activity on a web page, the next step is to figure out the motivation behind the act: why is the intruder behaving in this exact manner? Cyber criminals come in all shapes, sizes, and nationalities, and as my company grew, I came to realize that building a diverse pool of employees wasn’t a question of equity or “political correctness,” but an essential piece of being first-in-class.

It wasn’t just about gender. My engineers, for example, were mostly male, yet my team reflected a broad spectrum of backgrounds—people from poor families and people born into wealth; computer science prodigies and recent converts; college drop-outs and triple Ph.Ds. Each brought their own perspective and life experience, enriching the inputs at every meeting and for every product and service we offered.

When I looked back at my earlier career and my education in computer science, I could see how narrow and constrained my experiences had been when everyone in the room (except me!) looked and thought the same way. The more I pondered it, the more passionate I became about changing how America assembles its workforce. After selling Silver Tail, I decided to tackle the problem head-on by creating Unitive, a software platform aimed at removing unconscious bias from the hiring process. My software addresses the very prevalent problem of the unconscious “gut reaction,” our collective propensity to be drawn to what is familiar, and make off-base assumptions about what is not. Silicon Valley, for example, is trying to diversify—Google and Facebook very publically, very expensively—so far to very little effect. Some read about Google’s one percent increase in female hires and wring their hands about all those other women not getting jobs, but to me, the issue goes far beyond an equal employment playing field for women and people of color (though that is undeniably important).

When I envision a future of companies whose boards, leadership teams and employee pools are, like America, roughly 50 percent female and 40 percent people of color, I see products we haven’t even considered, services that transform how we live, and solutions to our most intractable social problems generated by a richness of talent we can hardly imagine today. We may not know exactly how to get there, but it’s a mystery all of us, cyber-sleuths and otherwise, should consider well worth solving.

Author:

Laura Mather, PhD, is the Founder and CEO of Unitive, a platform that seeks to change the hiring process by disrupting the unconscious bias holding back women and people of color.