On the day of 9/11 a couple of things happened to Michelle Dennedy. First, she lost dozens of childhood friends in just a few short moments, and second, she became acutely aware that times had irreversibly changed. Security, especially data privacy, would be at the forefront of people’s minds forever more.
Looking at her newborn daughter Riley, Michelle knew she had to be involved in how data was used and managed. “Looking down at her I thought, she’s just got a name right now, no one knows her but me and her father, I don’t want to hand over her story to someone else.”
An attorney at the time, Michelle was soon recruited by Cisco to teach the world how to safely network and the importance of data privacy. “At this time, I learned that privacy is not just a business enigma, but it is a fundamental human right,” she tells me. It was this purpose and passion that would fuel her life’s work.
Nearly two decades later and following several colossal data breaches in the US from companies like Facebook, Yahoo and Quora, I ask Michelle why it’s so important for Cisco to stay ahead of the pack and prioritise security. She recounts past discussions about the topic.
“We build the network for the world. We connect businesses, governments, police forces. We are a technical operations team that builds people up when they are in the middle of natural disaster or wartime. We have so much stake in this game.’”
In effect, Cisco’s focus on privacy helps to drive awareness for all.
Key to this pursuit, is diversity– plain and simple, says Michelle. As the world continues to digitally transform it’s never been more important for women to be at the helm of technology to ensure there are a wide range of skills sets, and diverse points of view.
“Attackers are coming from every walk of life,” she explains. “They are coming from the inner cities, they are coming from the former Soviet blocks, they’re sometimes regular people who are curious about things and want to get their downloaded music for free.
“If we are not including a diversity of thought across backgrounds, including economic and gender– we will not match the risk that’s out there,” she adds. “So, we will not be able to secure our networks without a diverse workforce.”
But Michelle believes there’s still a long way to go before females in tech and IT become commonplace. Currently, only 17 percent of these positions are held by women.
“I think culturally, women have a lot of self-limiting beliefs,” she says. “You’re supposed to do really well in school and you are kind of shocked that you’re doing better than your male colleagues at maths and then you’re also doing better at the verbal and the humanities.” This ingrained acceptance that they’re not meant to rise to the top inhibits many women from pursuing historically male-centric careers.
So how does a company like Cisco overcome this? How does it ensure a diverse spectrum of talent is being brought into the mix and supported to stay?
“To continue forward we have to let in some fresh air,” says Michelle bluntly. “Do companies really open the door enough to fresh external thinking?”
In recent years, Cisco has committed to pay parity, and sponsoring diverse talent.
“The most important sponsors right now have to be men,” she says. “There’s a program we kicked off called The Multiplier Effect and it says it doesn’t matter if you are a man or woman, find someone different from you– LGBTIQ, a person of a different gender, a person of colour etc– and the math will tell you this: If every single person in leadership sponsored or took ownership over one other person’s career who is different to them, 97% of talent coming up through the pipeline will be diverse – sponsored by those in leadership.”
And if more women are sponsored in this way, the technology industry can expect a whole lot more innovation to take place.
“Not everything’s been invented. We haven’t even scratched the surface,” says Michelle.
On the 7th of March 2019, Michelle Dennedy hosted the annual Women in IT Awards as part of the Cisco Live Conference in Melbourne. Seven women in the technology industry were recognised for their excellence, winning awards across categories including academia, community, rising star, diversity, innovation and CIO of the year:
Below is a list of this year’s incredible winners:
Academia Award: Lihong Zheng, Charles Sturt University
Community Award: Sarah Moran, Girl Geek Academy
The Rising Star Award: Penny Rhode, Araza
The Diversity Initiative Award: Victoria Kluth, Araza
Outstanding ICT Technology Innovation Award: Jennifer Vasquez, Nestle (Winner)
Jackie Plunkett, Loddon Mallee Rural Health Alliance (Runner up)
CIO of the Year: Donna-Maree Vinci, Bank of Queensland