International Women’s Day: A Time to Reflect Back and Peer Forward

Posted on by Sandra Toms

Finding the time to reflect can be hard. We’re all busy, so wrapped up in the day-to-day of our lives that putting aside time for anything other than what’s in front of us can feel daunting. 

For me that’s been especially true this week, as more than 40,000 people, 740 speakers and countless sessions and seminars at Moscone Center have kept me focused on delivering the best experience for our attendees. But today, as we enter the final day of the 28th RSA Conference, I’ve found a mirror in the form of International Women’s Day (IWD). 

Celebrated each year since 1911, IWD recognizes the achievements of women all over the world and calls for accelerating gender parity. Though we’ve certainly come a very long way since the early 20th century, few industries can boast true gender parity and the #MeToo movement exposed a wound still healing and in need of bandaging. 

IWD has presented me with a wonderful moment to reflect on my own career as a woman, the path I took, who helped me get to where I am, and where I hope to go in the future. 

Looking Back

The first reaction that comes to mind when I look back on my career is that I’ve been fortunate. I very infrequently experienced malicious bias or sexism in my career and have been fortunate to have overwhelmingly great managers throughout my career that have inspired and motivated me, and fortunate to work with equally inspiring, intelligent colleagues. 

Sure, I’ve had some negative experiences, but that’s one area where gender parity has been strong. I’ve found that a female is just as likely to be as horrible a boss as a male, and a male is just as likely to be as great a boss as a female. What matters is the person, not the gender, and I’d argue that when we use the term “diversity” we’re often not going deep enough to examine the individuals’ life experiences, their background, religion, values, etc. Looking at equality as a male/female issue only tends to ignore the diversity within each gender and within each individual. 

When I hire, I don’t think about hiring men or women in the strict sense of the words; instead I hire for a team, for the right fit and for a balance that’s going to work for that role. I ask which I’d want to get lunch with, which I’ve found to be an authentic, true and ethical technique to understanding who someone is. 

My career experiences have reminded me that no single gender nor a single individual got me to where I am today, just as no one gender or person will usher me along the rest of my journey. 

Looking Forward

It wasn’t that long ago when there was no line for the women’s restroom at RSAC. Lately, there’s been a queue. Let me be clear: this is not a complaint. Through the outstanding work and initiative from countless partners, more and more women are found in the Conference hallways, on keynote stages, leading sessions and hosting networking events. These efforts helped drive a statistic I’m very proud of: at this year’s Conference 46 percent of all keynote speakers were women. For the cybersecurity industry in which women only hold about 11 percent of jobs globally, this is very encouraging. 

While I reflect fondly on my past today, I also think it’s important to look forward, and despite the tremendous advances made by women in cybersecurity, we’ve still got a long way to go. Some sobering facts hammer this home. While RSAC keynotes saw near gender parity this year, women made up 32 percent of our overall speakers. This brings about a pressing question: how can we expect more young women to enter cybersecurity if they don’t see many women presenting about it? 

Young women, just like young men, need role models. They need to see successful women like them to understand there’s a path for their own success. They need to see these successful women talking publicly about their personal journeys and positioning themselves as leaders alongside men. I think organizations can be doing more to encourage more diverse voices within their ranks to get out and talk, to network and to share their unique paths with new audiences. I hope one day soon to see total gender parity in session submissions, on stage and in the audience of RSAC. 

Reflecting on IWD today, it’s clear to me that the answers to our problems, regardless of industry or geography, won’t ever come from one gender or another, just as it won’t come from a single ethnicity, religion, or life experience. The path to answers and progress begins with and must always include encouraging as many voices and as many points of view as possible. I’ve been fortunate in my career to be exposed to such diversity and have benefited greatly from it. 

I’m encouraged by the incredible programming we had at RSAC this year that was dedicated to supporting women and by all of the amazing IWD events happening around the world. Be sure to follow the official IWD hashtag #BalanceforBetter!

Sandra Toms

Vice President and Curator, RSA Conference

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