WiCSME’s Journey in the Arab Region: Increasing Women Participation in Cyber Security

Article by CNG Editor

Women in Cyber Security Middle East (WiCSME) was founded in April 2018 as a volunteer group to build a robust, and dependable network of passionate female cyber security professionals in the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries, and eventually, increase the percentage of women in the workforce and encourage more female leadership in cyber security in the region.

The group has grown from 9 founding members to over 2000 members from 23 countries. These members, whilst being on the move, are deeply connected with the regional culture, and societal values, which makes it uniquely family-like.

WiCSME has a number of key capacity building initiatives, all of which were firsts in MENA. WiCSME Annual Conferences reflect on and celebrate the success of these initiatives. These Annual Conferences, began as a virtual event in 2020 and then in 2021 & 2022 as a hybrid with the onsite conferences being held in Saudi Arabia and Oman, respectively.

The WiCSME Annual Conferences are based on 3 key pillars:

1. Create Opportunity for Hands-on Learning through the WiCSME Capture the Flag (CTF) competition.

This is a 24-hour live hacking competition where one of the critical criteria to participate is having at least one female player on the team. From 2020 to 2022, we saw a growth in women’s participation in the CTF. The CTF saw a manifold increase year on year, beginning with 35% of 380 participants in 2020 to 50% of 790 female CTF players in 2022.

2.Showcase Knowledge through multiple knowledge sessions.

The 2 days Annual conference provides an opportunity for the women in the region to share stage with many internationally successful and inspiring women, thereby not only unveiling the wealth of knowledge held by these regional talents, but also proving the much-needed platform to practice and motivate themselves to continue acting at world class.

3. Acknowledge and celebrate the female cyber jewels through the WiCSME Annual Awards.

It’s a formal way of recognizing, showcasing and appreciating the unique capabilities and contribution of women in cyber security in their capacities as rising stars, leaders in the field, or contributors to broader communities. Since start of these awards, we have felt a tremendous increase in the confidence of our members, transforming from a follower to a leader; contributing back to the community in their own unique ways.

These speak for the impact that WiCSME is making while recognizing the challenges that we often face in the regional setup. We have experienced historical moments by establishing a platform for our sisters in the region which is fuelled by respect, openness to ideas, constructive feedback and a passion to strive for excellence.

In 2022 we saw WiCSME evolving as a visible contributor in national and international cybersecurity leadership, such as Expo Dubai and United Nation’s OEWG (Open Ended Working Group). It was in the United Nation’s OEWG, where WiCSME leadership, represented by Dr. Reem Al Shammari, first boldly talked about our success so far and the dream of creating a United Nations of women in cybersecurity, creating a sustainable and secure future, for generations to come.

WiCSME continues to break barriers and achieve new records. We are creating history, delivering by example that, with the right minds connecting with the right vision, fuelled by passion, things can change for the better. We are also proud to mention that in this region, we have support of the best allies in the industry:

• various government organizations
• other global women in cyber organizations
• male allies
• many leading cybersecurity event organizers

They believe in WiCSME’s mission and support us as we try to find bigger and better ways of changing the norms of the future. WiCSME is now an active contributor in many leading cybersecurity events, providing the channel for its members to showcase their expertise and contribution in this industry. In 2022, Middle East saw the highest numbers of female speakers in international events being held in the region, such as RSA Conference and Black Hat middle east.

This is a living proof that WiCSME is a multiplier. The members now have a network and safety net of like-minded women to lean on and grow together.

We continue to collaborate with the public and private organizations, government, academia, and community programs. We hope that there will be a day when we will have the United Nations of Women in Cybersecurity, uniting all the tremendous efforts of all women in cybersecurity groups around the globe to collectively support us in achieving the mission. As with the recent events of layoffs in the tech companies, we, together with other Women in Cybersecurity groups globally, need to work hand in hand to continuously engage, motivate, and inspire the women to stay stronger together, and remain consistently committed to this advocacy.

We were committed to start and now we need to be consistent to finish.