Earlier this year, the RSA cyber security conference came under fire for including only one female keynote speaker in a line-up of 20. The issue is not unique: In January, the CES technology conference also revealed a line-up lacking women speakers.
RSA later updated its list to include seven women, arguing that it was incomplete. When the conference organisers were challenged, they said that women in cyber security are hard to find. This isn’t true, say BAE Systems threat intelligence analysts Kirsten Ward and Saher Naumaan, who have just launched what they claim is the first cyber security conference of its kind in Europe, featuring an all-female speaker line-up.
“It means they’re not trying hard enough,” says Naumaan. “There are plenty of exceptional women qualified to speak at such conferences. But because they are not promoted or given as much exposure as men, their participation is disproportionately skewed. We’re correcting this existing imbalance: all any conference organisers have to do is what we did – put in a little effort.”
The pair had noticed a lack of diversity at cyber security conferences, which in some cases resulted in a “less than welcoming environment”, says Ward. But she and her colleague decided to take action, pitching an idea to their business: a cyber security event aiming to reset the balance – aptly named ‘RESET’.
“We are debunking the myth that there aren’t enough women experts out there,” says Naumaan. “These experts exist in abundance, more than enough for a full-day conference line-up. The goal is to normalise the idea of women speakers in these contexts: it shouldn’t be a one-off, but rather an institutionalised change that reflects the expertise out there.”
In fact, Ward explains, the two produced a list of over 100 experts in the industry before even asking anyone to present. “That took a few hours and we could have kept the list going,” Ward says.
The issue is certainly being recognised by many in the industry, with entire conferences organised to discuss increasing the number of women working in cyber security. Indeed, the gender diversity conversation is already being had at events: Infosec, for example includes ‘women in security’ networking sessions. Panels of women are often asked to talk about the issues preventing more females from getting into the sector.
Sessions such as these do help, but it’s also important to see female speakers talking about cyber security itself – and it is this that makes Naumaan and Ward’s RESET conference unique.
“Events discussing ‘women in cyber security’ are incredibly important and have their place,” Naumaan says. “But women are also tired of being asked about what it’s like to be a woman in STEM. We want to give these women the opportunity to talk about their research and what they are knowledgeable about. We’re making it about their work, not about their gender.”
Ward agrees. “We want people to see them first and foremost as experts in cyber security. We’re putting these brilliant women on the podium to share their expertise and stories and to unpack the some of the biggest questions facing us in cyber security today.”
Yet at the same time, it can’t be denied that there’s a shortfall of women getting into the security sector: despite the industry’s best efforts, women only make up 11% of cyber security professionals worldwide. So, what more needs to be done?
Firms need to look across multiple areas to encourage change, considering early engagement, recruitment and retention, as well as initiatives to improve diversity at the board level, says Ward. “Training against unconscious bias and ensuring companies offer an inclusive working environment are also important. We need to change the perception that people in cyber security are men wearing hoodies working in a dark room.”
Naumaan adds: “When you consider the systemic bias that already disadvantages women and minorities, it’s clear employers need to make an active effort to seek out those under-represented candidates who may have less visibility but are equally qualified.”
And the pair hope that in the future, other conferences will actively start to prioritise diversity. Indeed, says Naumaan: “A bunch of women speakers should be the norm, not an exception.”
RESET takes place on 14 June atUniversity College, London (UCL). Highlights include Kim Zetter, an award-winning investigative journalist and world expert on Stuxnet, the world’s first digital weapon used to sabotage Iran’s nuclear programme.
Meanwhile, Andrea Limbago, chief social scientist at Endgame will examine disinformation campaigns and look at how threat actors are integrating bots and trolls into their operations. Panel discussions will consider public and private roles in defending cyber space and the challenges in security as new technologies emerge.
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