The Shortest Line at RSA Conference 2018: Where are all the Women?

Anyone who has attended an RSA Conference knows that it is typically a male-dominated event. In keeping with this year’s theme, “Now Matters,” I decided that this was the year for me to take a step toward shifting that gender imbalance.

I reached out to my leadership team to request that I attend RSA Conference 2018 as a part of the SonicWall team. My motivations were clear: as a woman working in cyber security, I believe more women need to be represented at the RSA Conference (and every other information security event).

In early March, the organizers behind RSA Conference 2018 announced their preliminary lineup of keynote speakers to much backlash and outcry in the industry. Critics and concerned industry experts were quick to highlight that the lineup was stacked with 19 men out of a total of 20 speakers. The sole female speaker: Monica Lewinsky. Lewinsky, although undoubtedly an interesting and relevant keynote on the topic of anti-cyber-bullying, is not exactly a name synonymous with cyber security.

RSA’s position
To their credit, RSA Conference organizers were quick to clarify that the list was not yet complete. The initial list only included speakers that had been confirmed early, many of whom were connected to the conference through sponsorship deals. In a matter of days, the RSAC organizers clarified that the conference would “feature more than 130 female speakers tackling everything from data integrity to hybrid clouds to application security, among other topics.”

In a statement that seemed to shift the blame back to the industry, RSA highlighted that 20 percent of overall speakers at the event were women, even though Forrester estimates that 11 percent of cyber security positions are held by women.

Observations at RSA Conference
As a member of SonicWall’s booth team, I spent the majority of my time at the conference on the expo floor where, interestingly, there seemed to be a decent representation of both men and women. On closer examination, the majority of women present were wearing exhibitor badges, indicative of women gravitating toward marketing or sales roles in the technology industry. Though, admittedly, this is anecdotal evidence.

Over at Moscone West, where the keynote speeches and sessions required a full conference pass costing $2,000-plus per attendee, it was a different story. A SonicWall colleague who attended the first morning’s keynote sessions jokingly shared with me that it was the first time he had experienced longer waits for the male restrooms while the female restrooms were relative ghost towns.

Organizers even made changes to the restroom configuration: In the North Expo hall, the women’s restrooms were converted to be gender-neutral in order to facilitate demand.

Lines for the Men’s Restrooms at RSA Conference 2018. Photo Credit: Samantha Schwartz

A history of change

It wasn’t all negative news for female representation at the RSA Conference. The organizers at RSA have been adapting to the changing industry landscape long before this year’s criticism. As recently as five years ago, it was common to see technology vendors at trade shows advertising their products with the assistance of “booth babes.”

It wasn’t until 2015 that RSA, under industry pressure largely driven by social media, issued a ban on so-called “booth babes.” Exhibitors are contractually obliged to have all expo staff adhere to a dress code described as “business and/or business casual attire.” This move has forced marketers to find creative and unique ideas to garner booth traffic — everything from magicians to virtual reality experiences were on display at this year’s expo.

Women in cyber security
This year’s conference also featured several panels and discussions dedicated to the topic of women in the industry. An unexpectedly optimistic discussion, “Women in Computing: Why Are Women Leaving Computing Professions?,” provided valuable insights to help leaders address female turnover in the industry.

Caroline Wong led a panel discussion on “Women in Security: A Progressive Movement,” which focused on the value that a woman’s perspective can bring to the table along with actionable takeaways for addressing problems with hiring practices.

Diversity is everyone’s responsibility

While tech conference organizers certainly have a responsibility to ensure the conversation around gender disparity has a forum and that women are represented fairly, opportunities to accelerate the progress in this area lie within companies, leadership and individual employees at all levels.

The Frost & Sullivan report, “The 2017 Global Information Security Workforce Study: Women in Cybersecurity,” published some telling statistics about this effort. Although just 11 percent of information security professionals globally are women according to the report, women in the field are more likely (52 percent) than their male coworkers (46 percent) to hold a master’s degree or higher. Despite this, they still hold less workplace authority.

Many organizations say they want to hire more women, yet most companies, especially in male-dominated fields of technology and cyber security, are far from reaching hiring parity. In North America, for example, women represent 14 percent of the cyber security workforce — the highest percentage when compared to other regions like Asia-Pacific (10 percent), Africa (9 percent), Latin America (8 percent), Europe (7 percent) and the Middle East (5 percent). For context, in the United States alone, females make up 48 percent of the workforce, said the report.

Organizations need to increase their investment in women. Beyond the obvious opportunities — closing pay gaps and advancing women in top leadership — organizations need to make workplaces trusted spaces, implement unconscious bias education and share best practices.

If you are a woman involved in the tech industry, you have an opportunity to serve as a much-needed role model — both to other women and to your male colleagues, many of whom are eager to hear and understand the female perspective in this industry. In short, if you are a woman in tech … get out there, be seen and be heard.

Resources for Women in Cyber Security

Organizations
WiCyS Women in CyberSecurity
Women in Security and Privacy
National Center for Women & Information Technology
SWE – Society of Women Engineers
Conferences and Events
WiCyS Women in CyberSecurity
Grace Hopper Celebration
OURSA – Our Security Advocates
Scholarships
Raytheon’s Women Cyber Security Scholarship Program
(ISC)² Women’s CyberSecurity Scholarships
Scholarship for Women Studying Information Security

SonicWall is proud to be an equal-opportunity employer. We are committed to providing employees with a work environment free of discrimination and harassment and welcome the opportunity to support skilled, talented women and men in their cyber security careers. If you are interested in pursuing a career at SonicWall, please explore our careers page: https://www.sonicwall.com/en-us/about-sonicwall/careers

Terri O'Leary on Twitter
Terri O'Leary
Sr. Manager, E-Services | SonicWall
Terri O’Leary currently leads SonicWall’s E-Services group, comprising of self service, knowledge management, social media and community. Terri has over ten years of experience in building self service experiences that engage and delight customers. With a background in Cyberpsychology, she is dedicated to building platforms and creating content that facilitates useful and meaningful online interactions. She also has an Australian Shepherd puppy named Zero.
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