Embracing unique perspectives and becoming aware of potential biases translate into smarter, more informed, and innovative work – no matter the field. But to truly improve diversity and inclusion, the Federal government needs to show a commitment and dedication to cultivate, attract and retain diverse leaders.

While the Federal government has made progress in advancing diversity it must continue to focus on increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion amongst people of color and women in leading IT and cyber roles, two senior leaders at private-sector IT companies told MeriTalk in interviews to mark International Women’s Day on March 8.

The Biden-Harris Administration has placed diversity and inclusion at the forefront of its agenda. In the summer of 2021, President Biden released the Executive Order (EO) on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce. Private agencies have followed in step with Federal agencies who have strived to incorporate practices that build up diversity and inclusion in their organizations.

“The EO provides clear targets for progress, and the Strategic Plan to Advance DEIA lays out a solid roadmap for accomplishing those goals,” Lisa Lorenzin, field chief technology officer at Zscaler, told MeriTalk. “I’m very encouraged by the Biden administration’s efforts here. Seeing strong technologists like [Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director] Jen Easterly and [Deputy National Security Advisor for cyber and emerging technology] Anne Neuberger leading in influential cybersecurity executive positions is fantastic.”

However, in light of the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Federal government must focus on creating programs that keep women in the workforce longer. Without more diverse leadership in place, it’s difficult for aspiring IT and cyber professionals to see their own future in such positions.

“[The Federal government] must ask the tough questions of why women and minorities make it into the upper echelons of leadership so infrequently and what can be done to proactively reverse the recent exodus and loss of talent,” Teddra Burgess, senior vice president for the Public Sector at Tanium, told MeriTalk.

Agencies and their leaders can also play an active role in encouraging and investing in STEM education initiatives that address the diversity gap on the community level by partnering with nonprofits and educational institutions, Burgess added.

For example, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency partnered with Girls Who Code to develop tangible pathways for young women to pursue careers in cybersecurity and technology.

Programs like the Chief Information Officers Council’s Women in Federal IT & Cybersecurity Campaign and organizations like Women in Government help to raise visibility of women’s leadership, share career advice and opportunities, and build networks. At the same time, initiatives like the DOD Cyber Scholarship Program and the Federal Cybersecurity Workforce Strategy are positioned active outreach to, and specific targets for participation by, women and under-represented minorities.

Best Practices to Increase Diversity

Lorenzin explained that the commitment to increase diversity at an agency begins with the leaders in an enterprise.

A key practice to increase diversity is through establishing inter-departmental diversity and inclusion committees with a purpose-driven directive for these groups to help develop new ways to make their agency more attractive to a wider range of talent.

“We must be intentional, self-aware, and comfortable confronting our own potential biases. We must continuously commit to creating a space where cultural differences are celebrated and inequality is unacceptable,” Lorenzin said.

As a leader at Zscaler, Lorenzin advocates for diverse mentorship opportunities where mentees of any background and title can be matched to a mentor that they might not otherwise have sought out themselves. Lorenzin believes this is a great opportunity to break down cultural and organizational barriers and foster growth for both the mentor and mentee.

“Working with people with diverse backgrounds, experience and perspectives, we challenge groupthink and overcome rigid ways of thinking to sharpen our collective performance,” Lorenzin said.

Burgess told MeriTalk that encouragement from leaders in an enterprise “begins with remembering the feats of those that came before and celebrating their successes.” Women have advanced a long way in the Federal IT and cyber space, she said.

“Leaders across the Federal government and in private industry have a responsibility to honor that legacy by cultivating a work culture that thrives on diverse ideas and perspectives,” Burgess said.

And the path to creating that success, Burgess added, is through enabling others within the organization to carry out that mission. Focusing on being inclusive from the inside out sets the stage for building a more diverse workforce.

“I believe that diversity is the outcome of inclusion,” Burgess said. “Leaders should develop a strategic, open ecosystem approach that evaluates and proactively addresses subtle biases that create inequalities in all levels of the workplace – from hiring to task management, to leadership opportunities and growth.”

By enabling others to act and addressing key opportunities to change for the better, leaders can build a more inclusive environment, she said.

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Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.