Diverse Workforces Can Improve Agency Outcomes, Fed CIO Kent Says

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Building a diverse workforce that harnesses skills from different backgrounds helps agencies meet their missions and better serve the public, Federal CIO Suzette Kent said at AFFIRM’s Jan. 16 speaker series event.

“I was thrilled and excited when I came to the Federal government and actually looked at the numbers. The diversity of the leadership team in government actually is better than most industries,” she said. “The reason that’s important now is bringing diverse thinking.”

The theme of the event – women in government IT – focused specifically on gender disparities in the Federal workplace. Kent first shared how her own personal experiences have shaped her professional skills. The unexpected challenges of parenthood, for example, boost creativity that is transferable to problem-solving on the job.

“You also learn to be resilient, an amazing multi-tasker, and there is a clarity of focus that comes with what is most important when you have to make about 50 decisions a day [as a parent],” she said.

Kent added that gender differences also introduce new skills to leadership conversations that they may have lacked before. Women can help drive the collaborative nature of conversations, the Federal CIO said, while also acknowledging that there are men with the same ability.

To mobilize the value that diversity can bring to the Federal space, Kent told agencies not to shy away from diverse conversations. Building relationships and bringing diverse thinking to the table is how agencies can be successful, she said, because it helps agencies raise the bar, work collaboratively, and manage like an enterprise.

At the Federal level, many agencies have already implemented programs aiding gender and other types of diversity.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), for example, has multiple internal organizations that boost the voices of women and minorities, CIO Sylvia Burns shared. Its Partnership of Women in the Workplace fosters mentorships and spark conversations about women’s struggles. The Office of Minority and Women Inclusion within FDIC is preparing an agencywide diversity strategy for internal review.

“You can do so much in your organization with the resources you already have at your disposal,” the CIO said.

Stacie Alboum, deputy director for the Center for Information Technology at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), added that many diversity and inclusion initiatives start with leadership. She advocated for the need to overcome cultural and climate barriers to advancing women’s careers.

“It’s not just about that women might be better at this or that,” the deputy director said. “We’re not in these positions because we’re women, we’re in these positions because we’re talented.”

Strong leaders who advocate for the skills of female employees at NIH, Alboum said, “permeate[d] through the organization.”

Melissa Bruce, Executive Director of the Business Management Office within the Department of Homeland Security’s OCIO, said that dispelling unconscious bias about diversity should be a part of the hiring process. Leaders within her office participate in unconscious bias training to demonstrate its value, and they apply lessons learned to the design of hiring panels.

“On my hiring panels in my office, I try to get as diverse on the panels as I can among four different people. Age, race, ethnicity, gender, seniority – whatever we can possibly mix,” she said. “I want the team to benefit from different experiences, different backgrounds, and different ideas that people have … That’s how you achieve the most creativity.”

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