MI 6 chief on why gender diversity is a matter of national urgency

MI 6 Chief Sir Alex Younger believes Britain's got tech talent, and attracting the best and brightest means levelling the playing field for women in technology. Here's why.

Updated on 27 January 2016.

“My message is a simple one: we need the best talent from the widest range of backgrounds to counter the threats facing this country and to seize the opportunities presented by modern technology,” according to MI 6 Chief, Sir Alex Younger.
Sir Alex is camera shy to say the least. For security reasons, his name was kept out of the press as he was ushered in to speak at Vitesse Media’s Women in IT Awards last night. In a rare public appearance, Sir Alex expressed the importance of getting the best and brightest that Britain has to offer in keeping the nation safe.

“We in the covert world, the intelligence services of the UK – GCHQ, MI5 and MI6, find ourselves in the frontline confronting a large number of the threats that are facing the country that are kind of the other side of the positive of globalisation,” he said.
“They are identifying, penetrating and disrupting terrorist groups; they are uncovering the activities of hostile intelligence services who seek to undermine our country and our allies. And of course, relevant to this evening, they are identifying threats in cyber space; cyber criminals, terrorist and spies who are using new methods to threaten us in very old ways.”

According to Sir Alex, this is where the power of gender parity comes into play. “We are in a Darwinian world in intelligence,” he explained, summarising a race to the top.“The more different people you have in the room, in these high-pressure circumstances in which we operate, the better the decisions. So, success for me is a deeper, broader range of technological skills in MI6 and more diversity, in particular more women.”

Sir Alex stressed the importance of shattering the glass ceiling across the industry. “What matters is your character, your creativity and your determination. It doesn’t matter what you gender is, what matters is your character, your creativity and your determination. And so it is at MI6.”

The Women in Finance Awards

The male-dominated talent pipeline, and the gaping gender pay and promotion gap are issues rife in financial services, just as it is in technology. This is what the Women in Finance Awards aims to address in June this year, celebrating gender parity advocates and recognising talent in financial services; from fund managers to CFOs. Supported by policy makers and advocate groups alike, the event will take on the elephant in the room when it comes to gender issues in the corporate world: no excuses, no lip service, and definitely no apologies. Nominations are now open.

Technology and the secret services

The secret services, or MI 6, was set up in 1909 to reveal the secret aspects of Germany’s plans to start the First World War (which, as Sir Alex said last night, “obviously didn’t end as well as it could have”). Since then, MI6 has been finding ways to stay ahead of the ‘bad guys’. “As I look back on my 25-year career and I think about recent memory, we in the intelligence community are probably under more pressure and greater weight of expectation for what we do than certainly I can ever remember,” he said.

According to Sir Alex, the number and severity of challenges facing the world today are in part because of globalisation, and also in part because digitalisation takes away a lot of borders and boundaries between the UK and the rest of the world.

“We are only as good as our last operation and we have to stay ahead of our opponents if we are to be successful. And these are opponents…will do more-or-less anything to achieve their objectives and it falls to us to stay ahead.”

The way to stay ahead of the curve is to make sure that “technology is on our side and not on the side of our enemies and, secondly, that we in MI6 draw on the full range of talent that our country has to offer,” Sir Alex added.

“Technology has always been at the heart of MI6. My sixteenth predecessor, Sir Mansfield Smith Cumming, who set up MI6, he was a massive gadget guy. I heard one day he chopped off his own leg after a car crash in the First World War, which sets quite a high bar. He was very handy and outside my office at Vauxhall Cross there’s a big grandfather clock which he built himself with his own hands. It’s a beautiful thing. So, he was into gadgets and so it has continued.”

Sir Alex believes the challenges of what they do as the human intelligence service in creating relationships with agents overseas who give them the intelligence they need, has always been buttressed by technology.

“My predecessor, Hugh Sinclair, just before the Second World War recognised the power of data, arguably the first person to do it, and turned that insight into Bletchley Park which in turn in fact became GCHQ. So, we’ve got technology in our blood. The gadgets now that we employ or operational technology as we more properly call it probably defy the imagination of spy writers,” he added.

CyberFirst: getting women into secret services

GCHQ’s five-year plan, announced in November 2016, includes the CyberFirst challenge, which aims to get tech savvy teenage girls thinking about a career in cyber security. Girls aged 13 to 15 will compete in logic, coding, networking and cryptography challenges, working in teams of four from their school computers. The 10 groups with the highest scores will then be invited to the CyberFirst competition final in London to investigate a complex cyber threat. CyberFirst’s winning team will be awarded £1,000 worth of computer equipment for their school, as well as individual prizes. The end goal of this initiative is to boost diversity in the cyber security industry; only 10 per cent of the industry is made up of women.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2016 to 2018.

Related Topics