RSAC's diversity and inclusion initiative stresses equality on keynote stage

RSA Conference curator Sandra Toms hopes a new diversity and inclusion initiative will facilitate change in the cybersecurity industry, starting with the upcoming 2019 conference.

The 2018 RSA Conference received an unexpected amount of criticism following the announcement of its initial keynote lineup, which featured only one woman -- and more than 20 men. The conference lineup was amended to feature more diverse speakers, but the backlash still raised the issue of better representation for women and minorities at security conferences.

For 2019, RSA Conference organizers learned from the experience and launched an extensive diversity and inclusion initiative to get more women and minorities on stage and to make the RSA Conference a more welcoming event.

In this Q&A, Sandra Toms, VP and curator of the RSA Conference, discusses the issues and what her team has been doing to address them for this year's RSA Conference, as well as future conferences. Toms also talks about the bad press that surrounded the 2018 conference and why she's glad it happened.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is included in the new diversity and inclusion initiative that RSA Conference is introducing this year? What's being done differently?

Sandra Toms: We've done a lot. We've made a lot of progress, with more still to come.

One thing that I learned with the D&I [diversity and inclusion] process is that it's never-ending. We've been passionate about diversity and inclusion at RSA Conference, and we're pushing forward and really trying to be aggressive and continuing to course-correct. D&I is really not a yes, no, true-false; it's not binary -- it's a lot of shades of gray. We're un-breaking the shades of gray and trying to make things better and broader. We're pretty excited about it.

Sandra Toms, VP and curator, RSA ConferenceSandra Toms

I think, too, that the conference has always been a really great platform to have the industry come together and talk about things that are controversial and things that are top of mind and new threats, new attacks, etc. And we've always been a very, very neutral platform in allowing people to come together.

But for diversity and inclusion, we're not standing on the sidelines anymore. As you know, women represent, for technology roles, about 26% of all jobs; in cybersecurity, it's only 11%, so there's a lot of work that needs to be done here. We're not standing on the sidelines; we're being aggressive about diversity and inclusion.

We developed a program where we have kind of four key pillars. One of them relates to governance; the second is programming content; making RSA welcoming, so kind of comfort and safety; and then also investing in the future.

It's great that the RSA Conference has taken on all those areas in its diversity and inclusion initiative.

Toms: I know we're not going to get everything right, but we're so open and receptive. I'm grateful for the amazing partners that we have, and we'll continue to iterate and change and morph and expand. It feels really good to talk about all of this because it's a passion of mine.

I'm hoping that we could change the face of the industry because I think the only way cybersecurity is going to get better is if we have different perspectives in the room. I really believe that diversity and inclusion make the industry stronger; [it can] help us create better products because we have different perspectives, more effective teams and [can] achieve better results -- and, hopefully, develop new innovations, which this sector really needs.

You mentioned in the announcement of the diversity and inclusion initiative that you provided more guidance to your sponsors who send speakers. Could you talk a little bit about what specific guidance you gave them?

Toms: Part of it was just talking about last year. The whole industry was on notice with the surrounding media coverage around RSA Conference last year.

Albeit, a lot of what had happened, a lot of the criticism, was a bit premature because it related to our keynote lineup, which wasn't final at the time. And when we finally did pull it all together, 25% of the speakers were women. I get that, but everyone took notice.

Part of my discussions has been walking people through last year. The importance to think broadly, the importance of not just gender diversity, but all diversity, is really important to the industry.

The thing is, it didn't take much. Once I started having the conversation, the sponsor teams often came back to me saying, 'You know what? We have this phenomenal person who is the chief of our research community and she would be amazing to have on stage.'

I think it was just a little bit like, 'Hey, let's talk about last year,' for most of the sponsors, and then they were right on board. It was great to have that partnership with them.

I think people are doing the right thing. And ... not because it's politically correct to do, but they get it; they know that diversity is really important and that it makes us better, faster, stronger as an industry.

Were you surprised at all by the criticism about the conference last year?

Toms: It surprised me because I knew that our keynote lineup wasn't finalized. It was surprising, to be frank, because most of the people on my team are females and we felt passionately about it. I mean, we had different programming for women for 10-plus years.

But, at the same time -- and this is a very selfish perspective -- for me, it was welcome that there was more of a spotlight on this issue. I've been with the conference for 20 years. I remember I was talking to a group of women about diversity and inclusion issues and programming that we could potentially do because we're continuing to hone everything we're doing.

When I talked about attending the conference 20 years ago, I felt like I owned a particular bathroom stall in the public restroom because there were so few women. It was almost like I could hang pictures of my kids and bring stuff from home. It felt like I owned it because I was one of a handful of women.

Now, to see our ranks are at 20%, it feels good. I don't always appreciate standing in line for a restroom when I felt like I owned my stall 20 years ago, but I welcome it. That's the strength of the community and that's where we're going to find answers -- by bringing it all together and really hearing all perspectives. And perspectives related to gender, age, ethnicity, background, socio-economic level -- all of it is super important.

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