OURSA conference more secure on gender balance

New security conference in San Francisco offered more diverse line-up of speakers

The tech conference circuit has suffered from a dearth of women speakers for years, and, as numerous scandals have shown recently, the industry hasn’t exactly proved itself to be women-friendly, either.

The tech conference circuit has suffered from a dearth of women speakers for years, and, as numerous scandals have shown recently, the industry hasn’t exactly proved itself to be women-friendly, either.

 

The annual RSA security conference, taking place in San Francisco this week, often captures the tech zeitgeist. Even when it doesn’t try.

Take, for example, an absence that speaks volumes. This year, there’s a hole in the opening keynote line-up that used to be filled by the director of the FBI.

But there’s no FBI director to take the stage right now. President Trump has fired both his former director James Comey, and the acting director who succeeded him, Andrew McCabe.

The RSA is also on during the same week in which Comey started his promotional tour of his book, which has been drawing the Twitter ire of POTUS for days.

All of this, just as current events in the US have pushed former FBI directors Comey and Robert Mueller – now the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election – to the top of the news agenda.

At past RSA conferences, I’ve heard talks by those two former FBI directors, men who have now become household names. But that was back in the old days, when the biggest controversy associated with them would be an inevitable defence during their keynote of crippling encryption products.

The RSA Conference attracts such high-level speakers because it is easily the largest mainstream security event in the world, and this year, is expected to attract around 50,000 attendees.

When I first stumbled across it in the late 1990s, it was perhaps one-tenth the size it is now, and almost exclusively male. So much so that I could usually count the number of women attending a session on one hand, and there were never queues for the restrooms.

Keynote speakers

That gender imbalance has improved over the years, if not, unfortunately, the gender representation on the RSA keynote speaker list.

This year, that has seemingly changed. Tuesday, for example – the opening day of keynotes – featured Department of Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who delivered a brisk, persuasive talk.

However, Nielsen wasn’t on the first iteration of a 20-speaker keynote line-up formally announced by RSA in February. Nor were any other women, except for anti-cyberbullying advocate Monica Lewinsky.

Nielsen had apparently been invited before then, but hadn’t yet confirmed. RSA, which is owned by Dell, said it also had extended other invitations to women, but they hadn’t yet replied. Perhaps, but they’d have done better to wait for more replies before promoting such a notably imbalanced list.

Instead, for all the wrong reasons, RSA managed to draw attention to a topic of the moment by reflecting, in a (depressingly) timely way, tech’s ongoing gender-biased incompetence.

The tech conference circuit has suffered from a dearth of women speakers for years, and, as numerous scandals have shown recently, the industry hasn’t exactly proved itself to be women-friendly, either.

The security industry is one of the most male-dominated, with women making up only 11 per cent of employees.

That figure was cited during a talk by Nielsen’s colleague, assistant DHS secretary Jeanette Manfra, in a closing keynote at OURSA, an alternative conference to RSA in a nearby venue which ran all day on Tuesday (it also was streamed live).

OURSA evolved out of the frustration and fury vented on Twitter when that original 20-speaker list was released by the RSA.

Thought provoking and informative as well as refreshingly diverse, OURSA featured four panels comprising mostly women (joined by some men of colour, equally underrepresented in tech conference keynote rosters).

No token line-up

Make no mistake, this was no token line-up. Rather, OURSA’s speakers signalled the presence of a significant, shamefully overlooked pool of diverse talent awaiting the opportunity to be heard.

Sessions ranged from policy and ethics to hardcore engineering problems, and OURSA’s speakers came from industry giants like Google, Twitter and Facebook, newcomers like CloudFlare and Oath, and activist organisations like the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The panel discussions were better than many I’ve attended over the years at RSA, where people too often start to plug their company and product rather than explore a session’s themes and issues.

These were confident, intriguing, audience-savvy speakers who demolished the often-heard conference organiser excuse that it is difficult to find competent presenters who can offer a gender and racial balance on programmes.

Honestly, how hard are conference organisers looking? Several OURSA panel organisers noted the challenge of selecting just five speakers from among up to 100 proposals for their session.

Right there, that’s a pool of several hundred possible speakers, mostly women.

While I was also happy to dive back into sessions at RSA the following day, OURSA was a revelation and a benchmark for what can – and should – be done at every conference.

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