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RSA Conference keynotes miss the point of diversity

RSA Conference finalized its keynote speaker lineup this week, and while the new cast has been adjusted to include more female speakers, precious few actually work in cybersecurity.

RSA conference was criticized last month for initially only booking one female keynote. Activist and writer Monica Lewinsky was formerly the only female keynote speaker at the conference and despite her important work in cyberbullying and online harassment, she is not a security professional.

RSA Conference Vice President and Curator Sandra Toms penned a blog post Monday that introduced the finalized list of RSA Conference keynotes, which featured an additional six female speakers. However, neither the blog post nor revamped lineup adequately addressed the equal representation issues that have surrounded RSAC.

“We’ve been working from the beginning to bring unique backgrounds and perspectives to the main stage, and are thrilled to deliver on that mission,” Toms wrote. “Whether business leaders, technologists, scientists, best-selling authors, activists, futurists or policy makers, our keynote speakers are at the top of their fields and have experience commanding a stage in front of thousands of people.”

RSA Conference’s work to add more female keynote speakers stands in stark contrast to OURSA, an alternative conference that was quickly organized in response to the lack of diversity and representation in the RSA Conference keynotes. The vast majority of speakers scheduled for OURSA — an acronym for Our Security Advocates — are female and all are accomplished in various cybersecurity fields. The lineup includes big names from Google, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU, Twitter and many others.

As the OURSA Conference was pulled together, the RSA Conference addressed the issue of diversity with another lackluster blog post from Toms.

“Invitations were extended to many potential female guest keynote speakers over the past seven months,” she wrote. “While the vast majority declined due to scheduling issues, the RSA Conference keynote line-up is not yet final. Overall this year, RSA Conference will feature more than 130 female speakers, on both the main stage, Industry Experts stage and in a variety of other sessions and labs, tackling topics from data integrity to hybrid clouds and application security, among others. And while 20% of our speakers at this year’s conference are women, we fully recognize there is still work to be done.”

The finalized lineup of speakers

The new lineup of RSA Conference keynotes is final and includes more women, but it sends mixed messages.

Keynote speakers for RSAC now include the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen; game designer and SuperBetter inventor Jane McGonigal; Kate Darling of MIT Media Lab; Dawn Song of UC Berkeley; founder and CEO of Girls Who Code Reshma Saujani; and New York Times bestselling author of “Hidden Figures” Margot Lee Shetterly.

In any other context, this is a remarkable lineup of speakers. But with few exceptions, these women are primarily not cybersecurity professionals who have been brought in to discuss cybersecurity topics.

OURSA Conference, which will take place the same week at RSA Conference in San Francisco, managed to bring together a diverse group of accomplished women to discuss actual technical topics — including applied security engineering, practical privacy protection, and security policy and ethics for emerging technology — in a short amount of time. However, RSA Conference has — seemingly in reaction to the negative press — selected successful women to speak about women’s issues at a security conference.

Bringing women into a security conference to discuss the issue of not enough women in security does not solve the problem. If women are to be properly represented at technology conferences, they need to be booked to speak about technology and they need to be considered initially — not as a reactionary stop-gap.

While the 2018 line-up of RSA Conference keynotes has many powerful names, perhaps next year it will take a page out of OURSA’s playbook and ask women in security to actually speak about security.

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