When organizers of this week’s RSA computer security conference in San Francisco revealed their initial keynote speaker list a month ago, one thing stood out: Of the 20 scheduled speakers, only one was a woman.
Critics immediately seized on the skewed gender ratio at the conference, among the most prominent in the tech industry, as just another example of sexism in tech. After all, for years, top conference speaking slots along with jobs at prominent tech firms have been filled largely by men.
To make matters worse, that one woman scheduled to speak at RSA—Monica Lewinsky, who has remade herself as an anti cyber-bullying advocate after playing the key role in President Bill Clinton’s impeachment —isn’t a technologist.
Under fire, the RSA’s organizers went back to the drawing board and came up with a final keynote lineup for their five-day event, which kicks off April 16, that is somewhat more gender balanced. Of the 23 speakers, 7 are women. They include Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, prominent game developer Jane McGonigal, and Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, a group that focuses on teaching girls to create software.
“We’ve been working from the beginning to bring unique backgrounds and perspectives to the main stage, and are thrilled to deliver on that mission,” said Sandra Toms, vice president and curator of the RSA conference.
RSA’s speaker problem is hardly unique. In January, CES, another high-profile conference, faced similar complaints for the skewed gender makeup of its solo keynote speakers, all of whom were men.
When releasing its initial list of keynote speakers, RSA explained away the keynote criticism by saying that its speaker lineup was not yet final and that women accounted for a large number of women speakers outside of the keynotes (at last count, there are 141 women scheduled to speak during the conference in both keynotes and lower profile sessions). Organizers also laid some blame on the tech industry itself, saying that women fill only a fraction of its jobs, including in computer security.
Indeed, the tech industry’s gender makeup is heavily skewed. In so-called diversity reports detailing employee demographics, a number of major companies have confirmed that men vastly outnumber women at all levels.
For example, last year, Google said that women accounted for 31% of its workers, and just 21% of its tech workers. In leadership, women fill just one quarter of all the jobs.
At many tech conference, at least, the reality is even bleaker for women, whose only upside to their underrepresentation at the events is that they don’t have to wait in long lines like men do to use the restroom.