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RSA Conference: This time with more women

Organizers of the gigantic cybersecurity conference say they have to push for more diversity.

Technology Leaders Speak At RSA Conference
Attendees in the exhibit hall at the RSA conference in 2007.
Getty Images

Earlier this year, RSA Conference organizers named only one woman out of 20 for its initial lineup of headline speakers at the massive cybersecurity conference. The result: a wave of complaints and a rogue conference, entitled OurSA, that featured women and minority speakers.

RSA Conference isn't making the same mistake next year. Conference organizers on Tuesday said they're banning all-male panels and urging their sponsors to send keynote speakers from diverse backgrounds. They're also adding new programs designed to make all attendees feel welcome and safe, like on-site child care and a safe walk program to escort attendees to nearby hotels and transit.

"The criticism we had last year was certainly a wakeup call," said Sandra Toms, the vice president and curator of RSA Conference.

Perhaps most important, the organizers of the conference issued a new mandate to its advisory board to make diversity and inclusion a major focus of the RSA Conference from now on. The organizers named nine new advisory board members to help usher in these changes.

The issue extends beyond the people speaking at a conference. It's about the fact that women hold only 11 percent of cybersecurity jobs, and the field is desperate for more qualified workers.

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The problem: Seeing mostly male headliners and attendees just "habituates people into thinking that this is a masculine field," said Carol Colatrella, co-director of the Georgia Tech Center for the Study of Women, Science, and Technology.

A more diverse speaker lineup could eventually help ease the "skills gap" plaguing the industry.

But while conference organizers are getting more women on panels, they're still working to change the gender makeup of their keynotes -- which is what got them in hot water in the first place. These presentations take place on a giant stage throughout the weeklong conference, often before thousands of people. The lineup of keynote speakers may be the hardest part of the event to change.

That's because speakers mostly come from the conference's sponsors -- giants like Microsoft and Cisco -- which decide on the executives who'll speak onstage. Last year, sponsors sent only men, reflecting the compositions of their leadership teams. The speakers list for RSA Conference 2019 hasn't been finalized, Toms said, but adds that organizers have been pushing sponsors to think about diversity when they choose keynote speakers. Those conversations have been going well, Toms said.

Caroline Wong, chief security strategist at security firm and one of the new members of the advisory board, said the conference planners are in a "delicate" situation as they gently push big-paying sponsors to think about diversity.

"If the people are asking for diversity then, 'Hey, sponsors, why don't you give them what they're asking for?'" Wong said.

More women and girls

There are a lot of different ways women and girls can participate in the RSA Conference in addition to being a headline speaker. The conference organizers are also focused on getting more women to submit talks for the conference's smaller stages, and to bring the next generation of girls to the conference.

To get more women on those stages next year, the organizers reached out to groups for women and minorities in cybersecurity to encourage their members to apply. As a result, the proportion of submissions coming from women jumped from 12 to 18 percent, Toms said. The call for speakers is still open.

The conference's planners are also working with groups focused on girls, including the Girl Scouts and the Cyberjutsu Girls' Academy. That harnesses the interest many girls already have in cybersecurity and shows them how they can turn it into a career, said Girl Scouts CEO Sylvia Acevedo.

"We didn't realize how big of an issue this was for girls," Acevedo said.

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