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Privacy Perspectives | Guys, we all need to put a stop to the ‘manel’ Related reading: Senate Commerce Committee to vote on Slaughter's FTC nomination

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I love to speak at conferences, which is a good thing because I’m a cybersecurity law professor. And the growing cybersecurity and privacy field has a lot of conferences. In stuffy hotel conference rooms, grand university lecture halls, and sterile corporate meeting centers, we have conferences. 

It didn’t take long after I joined the conference circuit to notice that men are far more likely than women to speak on panels. Some panels have no female participants. To be sure, many conference organizers – such as the IAPP – have balanced panel and speaker lineups and make a conscious effort to diversify. But too often, many panels are entirely male.

All-male panels (also known as “manels”) are not just a problem for privacy and cybersecurity. Professions across the spectrum suffer from gender imbalance at high-profile conferences. Conference speaking slots often are highly coveted, and they allow professionals to share their knowledge and gain higher profiles. If women are excluded from high-profile conferences, the entire profession should worry about the obvious inequity and unfairness of the status quo. 

The exclusion of women at privacy and cybersecurity conferences is especially troubling because we have an urgent workforce shortage. A report from Frost & Sullivan and ISC(2) predicted more than 1.5 million unfilled cybersecurity jobs by 2020. Privacy and cybersecurity are critical to our economy and national security, and we need to inspire as many people as possible to pursue these careers. If some of the field’s top conferences have all-male panels, we are alienating more than half of the population and discouraging them from working in our field.   

When I’ve raised these concerns with conference organizers and attendees, I’m met with a few reactions. Here they the three most common, along with my responses.

“It’s too bad that there aren’t more women in the profession.”

This excuse might be valid if it were remotely true. But it isn’t. Women are leaders in the privacy and cybersecurity field. Many of our government’s top former and current national security and regulatory officials are women, as are some of the top cyber scholars, think tank leaders, civil liberties advocates, chief privacy officers, and law firm cybersecurity partners. But you wouldn’t know that from the agendas of many conferences. 

“Gender shouldn’t be a factor in selecting speakers. It should be merit-based.”

I completely agree. So let’s say that a professional conference includes a number of all-male panels, even though the profession has an abundance of female leaders. A reasonable observer might conclude that gender bias led to the all-male panel. With the exception of double-blind peer reviewed academic conferences, organizers typically know the identity – and gender – of potential speakers before the invitations go out. Hundreds of people may be highly qualified to fill four speaking slots on a panel. There is not an objective mathematical formula to find the five most qualified speakers. A human being with bias – whether conscious or unconscious – is the one who decides on panelist invitations.

“I invited a woman but never heard back.”

That’s a good first step. But here’s a novel idea: call another one. Heck, call a whole bunch. And if you don’t know of any women who are experts on the topic, ask around. If a woman declines a speaking invitation or does not get back to you, she is not speaking on behalf of all women. 

I don’t suggest that every panel must be exactly 50 percent male and 50 percent female (and that’s impossible if you have three or five speakers on your panel). Some panels may have more women than men, and some panels may have more men than women. But the ultimate goal should be to have a roughly equal number of male and female speakers.

The all-male panel is not a new phenomenon. Conference organizers have faced criticism for years. Yet many panels continue to be all-male. We cannot rely on every conference organizer to solve this problem.

So I have a modest proposal for my fellow male panelists: Before you accept an invitation, ask how many women are on the panel, and how many are speaking at the conference. If it’s all-male, suggest some female speakers. And if the organizers don’t agree to diversify the line-up, politely decline the invitation.  

That’s what I recently did. The conference sounded fascinating, and the panel topic was smack-dab in the middle of my research interests. But after years of complaining about the gender inequity, I decided that I need to do something about it.

To the other male cybersecurity and privacy professionals: It’s time for all of us to take a stand on this. If enough men start to turn down speaking slots on all-male panels, then "manels" will start to fade away. 

Gender imbalance is a problem that we all must address, women and men. It’s time for all of us to step up and have our profession’s public image more closely resemble our workforce.

Jeff Kosseff is an assistant professor of cybersecurity law at the United States Naval Academy. The views expressed are only his, and do not represent the Naval Academy, Department of Navy, or Department of Defense.

photo credit: huub zeeman a cigarette break for men in a suit via photopin (license)

2 Comments

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  • comment Ruby Zefo • Jan 12, 2018
    Thank you Jeffrey for this!!  I chair the Intel Law & Policy Group's women's development program, and I think you are spot on.  If a panel is all male, there is no excuse that you want the best speakers unless you don't believe any women can be the best speakers.  If women (and men -- all are welcome) would like some advice on how to effectively communicate their skills, accomplishments, and special sauce, come to the IAPP Global Privacy Summit session on that topic with me and Anne Toth and expect a lively, interactive discussion on establishing your privacy street cred.
  • comment Pascale Tardif • Jan 19, 2018
    Thank you. Acknowledging is a great fist step.