April’s RSA Conference has just one woman on its speaker panel. That woman, Monica Lewinsky, has a vital message about digital privacy. But the rest of the 21 speakers and moderators at the conference are men. RSA organizers say the lineup is not finalized and that it has extended invites to women, but also put some of the blame on a lack of women in cybersecurity overall.
Yet days after the RSA criticism started, Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos and Google Engineering Director Parisa Tabriz organized OUR Security Advocates, a conference with mostly female panelists.
It brings to mind the all-male keynote lineup at CES two months ago. After an outcry, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), which runs the show, added a meager two women to an existing panel. CTA Senior Vice President Karen Chupka said the incident was unfortunate but pointed to a “limited pool of women” who hold positions high enough to keynote CES. Never mind that the CTA itself determines those criteria. By then, the message was clear and Twitter CMO Leslie Berland had created #HereWeAre, a panel of female keynote speakers at its own CES event.
The existence of these adjacent conference panels disproves the very claim organizers make. Yes, there is a dearth of women in tech, but those who are in it are eager to participate in panels that feature other women.
Conference organizers need to stop relying on lazy excuses, and examine why women might decline to participate in their events. Such a reflection might have saved the North American Bitcoin Conference, which held its official networking event at a Miami strip club, the deserved opprobrium it received.
All tech conferences should have a code of conduct. Among the many stories of #MeToo are ones of women being sexually harassed at these events. Setting expectations for how conference participants should behave and taking action when rules are broken would go a long way toward making women feel welcome. Web animator Rachel Nabors makes it plain on her site that she will not speak at a conference that does not have one in place. CES, the largest show in the industry, has no such code.
Doing away with “booth babes” is another must. Hiring models to appear alongside a product as an accessory deters women from attending and sets up a scenario for men to eye up women while talking business. This creepy dynamic has no place in a professional environment.
By taking these steps, conference organizers would be truly listening to women, and open the door to some very worthy women to put on panels for others to listen to as well.