Thanks to the popular James Bond movies, our image of a spy is sexy, sophisticated, handsome and male. What doesn’t come to mind when you think “spy” is a socially anxious mother of two who can’t read. But Britain has been actively recruiting such neurodiverse people into their Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) to tackle both foreign espionage and global terrorism.
The GCHQ, for one, knows the value of hiring a wide range of people who can view a problem from different perspectives. For example, those with Asperger’s tend to be analytical and concentrate on the problem at hand with laser-like focus until they’ve solved it. Someone with dyslexia has difficulty reading and writing, but is usually brilliant with patterns and repetitions. As the chairman of GCHQ’s dyslexic and dyspraxic support community, explained:
Alan Turing is a famous example of a dyslexic saving the day: he was a cryptanalyst who, in World War II, broke the Nazi’s Enigma code because of his ability to see things from various three-dimensional viewpoints, discern patterns and solve nearly impossible problems. (As a quick side note, as long as we’re discussing diversity, thousands of women were also cracking Nazi codes during the war.) Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Jefferson are all other famous dyslexics.
Being a spy is no longer merely about donning a disguise and sneaking into the enemy’s posh cocktail party (well, that’s what James Bond does...). Now spies must also be “experts in all things online, from analyzing data sets to carrying out surveillance by following someone’s digital trail… they are supporting frontline MI5 investigations into terrorism, espionage and cyber.” The CEO of the Cyber Security Challenge, Stephanie Daman, says that they work closely with the GCHQ and that winners of the challenge are often recruited into the intelligence agency.
And the method of advertising is as creative and expansive as the individuals that the GCHQ is seeking: their ads appear as pixelated posters on Xbox Live online games, via graffiti campaigns and as banner ads that target Mumsnet (a British parenting website) members.
GCHQ’s recruitment department sees mothers as qualified candidates based on their ability to make important decisions quickly with sometimes limited information. After the ads went up, Mumsnet got far more applicants for this job than any other that it posted in sixteen years. GCHQ has hired over 300 employees with dyslexia, autism, dyspraxia and other neurodiverse qualities because the hiring executives understand how not only their organization, but all of society benefits by harnessing the power of thinking differently.
With the huge workforce shortage in the cybersecurity industry – there were 1 million unfilled cybersecurity jobs in 2016 – it doesn’t take a 007 to figure out that we need to broaden the pipeline and get more creative about recruiting more diverse individuals.
About Selena Templeton
Selena Templeton is the Column Editor for the Equal Respect column on ITSPmagazine.