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A new security language

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Security and Diversity
photo of some text with the word 'language' superimposed over it
Licence: Creative Commons Attribution Shawn Econo

What’s in a word?

Language has the power to unite or divide us. It can bring people from different backgrounds together and create genuine alliances built on shared understanding. Language can also affect inclusion so much that it becomes an active barrier to a person applying for a job, or to joining a particular profession. When it comes to opening up the security profession, our choice of words really matters.

The very word ‘security’ traditionally conjures up images of armed guards, bouncers on the doors, barbed wire fences, padlocks, metal detectors, to name a few. However, a secure organisation depends on much more than just barricades and bodyguards. We can help counter this simplified misconception with our choice of words, better communicating all the aspects of working in the field to make security a more approachable place to work.

Security is a man’s game

The language used to describe anything subtly influences how it is perceived, including whether something is seen as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine.’ In security, we traditionally defend, protect, guard, resist threats and neutralise vulnerabilities – all very 007 and resonant with machismo. These words emphasise toughness and can subtly imply that these jobs are consequently more suited to men. The stereotypical language often used to describe ‘feminine’ characteristics – words such as caring, empathic, kind and supportive – do not often appear in a security context. Does this imply that women can’t make the tough decisions necessary in security?

Women can be tough of course. Kindness and empathy are not uniquely female traits and nor do they have no role to play in security. An ability to relate to others, understand their motivations, persuade people to change their behaviour and negotiate mutually agreeable outcomes are all skills vital for building an effective security culture. I’d argue that security can be a caring profession – it’s about looking after our colleagues, communities, buildings and values, nurturing a supportive environment and responding to the needs of an organisation.

It’s the technology, stupid.

Connected to this type of language is the idea that we can completely defend and protect, without allowing a weakness (risk) to get through. In this sense it’s easy to think of security as being all about the right technology. From firewalls to fencing, security appears preoccupied with getting the right kit in place. This demands specialist skills, years of security experience and familiarity with a shifting sand of jargon. Do you know your BILs from your BCMs, your SPF from your SSL? To the uninitiated, security can seem a daunting place, difficult to understand, with technical skills prized over all. This couldn’t be more wrong.

Security also demands project management, communications, stakeholder engagement and business change skills. We need staff interested in human behaviour and psychology, in nudging people to change what they do, to develop solutions to complex and sometimes fascinating, problems. Security can’t be guaranteed by technology alone and shouldn’t be left to the techies and securocrats to define. We’ve adopted technical language and acronyms where we could just use straightforward English that would make security easier for everyone to understand.

A new security lexicon

So instead of language that can deter and exclude let’s get a conversation going about security that everyone can join. We need a communication style that doesn’t rely on endless acronyms and years of learning the lingo. Let’s leave out the jargon, limit specialist terminology and challenge unclear language where we find it. This will help shape security as an open profession, rewarding specialist skills but recognising their limitations, and actively seeking new ideas and perspectives as the only way forward.

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