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OURSA security conference set up after RSA names 1 woman headliner

Major tech companies are backing a diverse event to compete with the RSA Conference.

A screenshot of the OURSA website showing a grid of 12 photos, each one featuring one of the event's speakers from their event happening in April. The conference organizers say the event features diverse voices.

The OURSA conference organizers say the event features diverse voices.

CNET

You want more diversity in your lineup of cybersecurity speakers? Step right over here, folks!

The organizers of the Our Security Advocates Conference are putting diversity at the center of its inaugural April meeting, which was announced on Monday. The one-day conference, set up over the weekend, will take place on April 17.

The timing is intentional, falling right at the beginning of the giant RSA Conference, one of the biggest gatherings of cybersecurity experts in the world. RSA runs from April 15-20 in San Francisco.

The conference was organized after critics expressed frustration last week that the RSA Conference features only one woman keynote speaker out of 20 headliners. Last Wednesday, Alex Stamos, Facebook's chief security officer, proposed a list of women speakers the conference could have invited, and said he'd hand out popcorn at an alternate event featuring them. 

"Inspired by a lack of diverse representation on the program agendas of other [information security] events, we decided to host our own with a dedicated focus to feature a diverse set of experts," OURSA organizers said in a statement. "Some conferences claim this is too hard to do because of the overall lack of diversity in the industry, we're going to prove otherwise."

"We applaud the efforts of OURSA for putting this event together, and bringing attention to the need for diversity in information security," RSA vice president and curator Sandra Toms said in an emailed statement.

The dueling conferences come as the cybersecurity community acknowledges that the lack of women in the field is a real problem. Women comprise 11 percent of the cybersecurity workforce (PDF), a lower representation than in the tech sector in general. In a field where companies can't hire people fast enough to protect computer networks from hackers, experts say that alienating women from the cybersecurity workforce could actually be making us less safe by keeping qualified applicants away. 

Toms said last week the keynote lineup isn't finalized and more women may yet become a part of the event. She also said the relative absence of women in the field makes it challenging to find women headliners for the conference.

"We strive each year for a diverse speaking panel," Toms said.

The new conference's organizers don't name RSA in their statement, but they abbreviate their event as OURSA. You might notice the two names rhyme.

Facebook's Stamos and Google security expert Parisa Tabriz put together a lineup of speakers that they say reflects the diversity they'd like to see at cybersecurity events. They're backed by sponsors Google, Facebook, Uber, Netflix, Dropbox and Cloudflare.

OURSA will compete for attendees with the Goliath that is the RSA Conference, which last year had 43,000 attendees. Still, OURSA has big name sponsors and speakers from Google, Facebook and Snap, as well as advocacy groups such as ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Access Now.

Some of the companies sponsoring OURSA have themselves come under scrutiny for their treatment of women and minorities, with Rev. Jesse Jackson calling out Google in 2014 for not releasing information on the demographics of its workforce. Google began disclosing that information, which started a wave of annual reports from the search giant and other major tech companies.

Uber has faced an onslaught of criticism for how it treats its women employees after searing allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination, as well as female riders who say the company doesn't protect their safety.

Cloudflare, which is hosting the event, is the only sponsor company with a female co-founder.

The sponsor companies are in a unique position to put on an event like OURSA. That's because none of them are sponsors of RSA Conference, which has support from other heavyweights like Microsoft, IBM and Cisco.

As for whether Stamos will be handing out popcorn at the event, he said on Twitter that he's "looking into it."

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