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Exclusive interview: Professor Alison Wakefield

Wakefield

Professor Alison Wakefield speaks with International Security Journal about her career so far and the importance of diversity in security.

Throughout the security industry, the issue of increasing the diversity of the individuals that work within the sector has been a topic of great debate for a while now. We have all seen the quite shocking statistics highlighting the huge inequality in the security workforce.

Research from the International Consortium of Minority Cybersecurity Professionals found that barely 14% of the cybersecurity workforce were women. This and similar studies have prompted associations around the world to look for ways to correct this imbalance.

ASIS International and the Security Industry Association (SIA) partnered to produce an event in December 2020 designed to help security organisations and businesses around the world develop and implement diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) strategies. The focus was on a strategic approach to diversity and inclusion, with the emphasis that a DE&I program can strengthen and deepen hiring practices by growing the pool of candidates, while increasing retention and engagement of team members and customers.

For many years now, one of the leading advocates for increasing diversity within security has been Professor Alison Wakefield, past Chair of the Security Institute and currently Co-Director of the University of West London Cybersecurity and Criminology Centre.

International Security Journal caught up with Wakefield to look back on her fantastic career so far and discuss what can be done to solve the diversity problem in the industry.

Making a difference

Professor Alison Wakefield has been a leading figure in professional security for more than 20 years. Most notably, she served as Chair of the Security Institute from 2018 until 2020 and is now Co-Director of the University of West London Cybersecurity and Criminology Centre.

Looking back on her time as Chair of the Security Institute, Wakefield said: “When I decided to stand for the Chairmanship of the Security Institute, I thought it was something I would look back on at the end of my life with great pride. I couldn’t imagine having such a wonderful opportunity again to make a difference within the world and within the security profession.

“To be part of the amazing trajectory that the Institute is on and working with the superb staff and Board of Directors was an absolute joy and privilege. It was a constant process of improvement, development and widening our reach and capabilities.”

Wakefield is immensely proud of her time in the role and highlighted a number of key successes that the Institute has recently achieved: “Surpassing 4,000 members was a fantastic milestone. One factor in this growth has been the continuing expansion in the range of services that the Institute can offer members. Much of this is due to the hard work of volunteers among the membership, including the Institute’s growing number of Special Interest Groups.

“We also worked really hard on our corporate social responsibility (CSR), much of which has been driven by Paul Barnard with the Secure Futures and NextGen programmes and by Anna-Liisa Tampuu and Lisa Reilly who Co-Chair the Inclusive Security SIG, to support the positive evolution of the security profession over the coming years and decades. Building up a strong CSR approach was also important to us given the criticism that the sector still receives all too often. It seems that every time a security officer makes a serious mistake, it is covered in the national press, far more often than the many occasions when they go beyond the call of duty.”

She continued: “To challenge perceptions that the security profession is just about frontline tactics, showing the scope and scale of its social responsibility is one of the strategies that the Institute is pursuing in order to help change external mindsets.”

Recruiting the right people

One area that Wakefield and the Security Institute have done a lot of important work on is increasing the diversity of the people who work in security. It is an issue close to Wakefield’s heart and it is clear that she would like to see a lot more being done to solve the problem.

“For me, the biggest transformation needs to be that employers begin to put a lot more focus on recruiting school leavers and graduates from a range of backgrounds. If you recruit predominantly from certain areas then you will simply not achieve the diversity you may be hoping for. Research has shown that workforces that aren’t diverse can lack innovation and be slower in their evolution, while having a diverse workforce brings proven organisational benefits. In security, it is also critical that security systems are fully tailored to the needs of the diverse communities they serve.

“It is a changing world and diversity and inclusion are critical for our profession to evolve accordingly. One positive development is that there are more graduate positions being created, especially in the area of threat analysis. It is vital though that employers don’t just target the elite universities to fill these positions: they should be recruiting from different institutions with varying demographic profiles. For example, the University of West London is exactly the kind of place where employers will find a more diverse profile of potential recruits, with over 60% of our students being people of colour.”

She added: “There is also far too much focus on people with STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) backgrounds in cybersecurity. Cybersecurity isn’t just a technical area, it’s a reflection of the acceleration in the digitisation of society and it needs people who understand offender motivations and victim behaviour, for example. A more diverse workforce is out there and available but employers often aren’t looking in the right places.” Wakefield added that in the public sector, including policing, there are many more examples of developing people in-house to confront the growing challenges of cybercrime.

Educating the industry

Alongside the continuation of her work championing diversity, Wakefield has her role at the University of West London to fulfil as well as a new book coming out in the summer.

The book is titled “Security and Crime: Converging Perspectives on a Complex World” and will be published by Sage. Wakefield explained a little more about it: “In the book, I have broken security down by dimensions of delivery and I have stepped through security at the international level, the regional, the national, the local, the individual, the cyber, the corporate and the maritime dimensions.

“Across the different chapters, I have tried to touch on almost every security issue that challenges us today and will challenge us in the decades to come. It is aimed at a varied audience including students, academics and practitioners and I hope it will be useful for those that work in security in any of those dimensions. It will show how we all fit into the bigger picture and help us to think more holistically about security.”

Looking at some of those security challenges that may lie ahead, Wakefield believes that the accelerated digitisation of organisations is a real concern. She stated: “A lot of companies have a new operating model with increased remote working due to the pandemic. This has led to a surge in cyber-attacks and numerous other challenges. As well as mitigating current pressures, there needs to be more work carried out to future-proof organisations against upcoming threats such as those that will be facilitated by quantum computing and advances in artificial intelligence.”

It has been a stellar career so far for Professor Alison Wakefield and she is certainly not finished yet. Whether it be on topics such as diversity, cybersecurity or criminology, she is one of the foremost thought leaders in the industry and she looks set to continue making a difference to the security profession for many years to come.

This article was originally published in the June 2021 edition of International Security Journal. To read your FREE digital copy of the magazine, click here.