RSA Cybersecurity Conference Tries to Rehab Image among Women

March 6, 2019

March 6, 2019: Sandra Toms has been the chief organizer of the RSA Conference in San Francisco for 21 years, helping to grow it from a meeting of a few hundred mathematicians and cryptographers in the early ’90s to an event attended by more than 40,000 people, including business leaders from around the world.

Working behind the scenes of the RSA Conference, hosted by Massachusetts cybersecurity firm RSA, Toms has sometimes struggled to boost the presence of women in security. Critics have panned the event in the past for a lack of gender diversity among speakers and for tolerating now-banned “booth babes” — models that companies hire to draw people to their booths — on the exhibitor floor.

This year’s conference is centered on the theme “Better,” which is fitting given the flak Toms and other organizers caught last year. Then, even as the #MeToo movement reached its height nationally, the conference tapped 19 men to give keynotes out of 20 total.

After companies put forward mostly male nominations again, for 2019, Toms said she had to go back and tell them to do better. “I thought I was going to have to change my major sponsors,” she said. “But everyone understood.” This year the conference doubled its number of keynote speakers, and it features a diverse set of thinkers that includes political strategist Donna Brazile and actress Tina Fey.

The boys club aspect of Silicon Valley is particularly entrenched in security. Women make up 26 percent of the tech workforce globally, but account for only 11 percent of positions in cybersecurity, according to a 2017 study.

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