Decision to hold women-in-cyber events in abortion-banning states sparks outcry
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Global nonprofit Women in Cybersecurity (WiCyS), despite months of controversy over the cities named to host its 2024 and 2025 conferences, says it will move forward as planned with the events in Nashville, Tennessee, and Dallas, Texas, respectively.
As the name suggests, WiCyS (pronounced "We Sis") is quite focused on putting more women in cybersecurity roles. It also aims to provide support and mentoring needed to retain women in the male-dominated industry, and help them to advance in their careers.
WiCyS has close ties to Tennessee: it was founded in 2014 through a National Science Foundation grant to Dr Ambareen Siraj at Tennessee Tech University, with the cash designated to run WiCyS conferences. WiCyS has since added training, job placement assistance, and other services.
In March, the organization announced its 2024 summit would take place in Nashville, just days after Tennessee Govenor Bill Lee signed two anti-LGBTQ+ bills into law: one that restricts drag shows in public places, and another that bans transgender minors from receiving gender-affirming care.
The state also criminalized abortions shortly after the US Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in 2022.
As Tennessee's laws are seen by some as a restriction on women's rights and access to healthcare, WiCyS' decision in March to hold its annual event in Nashville quickly drew criticism.
"Choosing Tennessee for next year's conference is choosing to exclude LGBTQ+ people from attending. 'Women in Cyber Security' should mean 'All Women in Cyber Security,' not just straight cis-women," Google Project Zero security researcher Maddie Stone said at the time.
Alyssa Miller, chief information security officer at Epiq Global, called the choice "shameful."
"Thank you WiCyS for choosing and event venue in a state where none of your LGBTQ members can exist safely," Miller added. "Obviously that mission of inclusion was lost."
Later that month, the organization's Equity Advocacy Committee, Executive Committee, and Board of Directors held a series of meetings to address concerns about the 2024 conference location.
"All potential options continue to be on the table," WiCyS noted at the time.
On Tuesday this week, after deliberation, the nonprofit returned to Plan A.
"We have reached a decision that was not made lightly, but after much careful consideration and meaningful conversations, we are moving forward with the conference as planned in Nashville, Tennessee in April 2024," WiCyS said in a June 13 statement.
The organization books conference venues at least three years in advance, and couldn't find another spot to accommodate more than 2,000 individuals, WiCyS added. Canceling altogether was "not viable," and holding a completely virtual event isn't sustainable for a nonprofit, it said.
We should add that technology conferences are held away from the US West and East Coast bubbles, and in places like Nashville, in part because it's cheaper to hold and attend, among other reasons.
- CISA joins forces with Women in CyberSecurity to break up the boy's club
- Microsoft pushes for more women in cybersecurity
- Google looking outside the usual channels to fix security skills gap
- Infosec still (mostly) a boys club
WiCyS pledged to create a safety committee that will "continuously assess and enhance the security measures at our conferences," in light of community concerns.
"We understand that the recent and proposed legislative actions in Tennessee have caused concern and discomfort for many, particularly our LGBTQ+ community," the statement continued. "We also recognize concerns regarding access to reproductive healthcare. We want to assure you that we have taken all perspectives into account, and it was indeed a difficult decision to make."
Dallas – which as a Texan city is located in another state that this year passed a slew of anti-LGBTQ+ laws, has also banned abortions and legalized bounties on people seeking and providing the medical procedure – will host the conference in 2025.
'Many factors' at play
When asked to respond to members' and conference attendees' concerns about both host cities, WiCyS Executive Director Lynn Dohm said "there were many factors that were considered in the decision to keep the pre-booked venues," and referred us to the group's statement.
"We do feel that the Tennessee legislation and others across the country are leaving folks within these states abandoned, and as a nonprofit organization working to build the cybersecurity workforce, we did not want to do the same," Dohm told The Register. "We want to support them. Moreover, constantly changing legislation is presenting a real challenge for us, since we must book our conferences years in advance."
WiCyS has created new criteria for selecting cities as conference hosts beyond 2027. But the bookings for its events between 2024 and 2027 won't change, she added.
Conference attendees who don't feel safe — or are just against — attending an event in one of these locations can livestream the conference. Beginning in 2024, all annual WiCyS conferences will be hybrid.
Dohm said she expects a mix of in-person and virtual speakers, too.
Additionally, the organization will donate 10 percent of attendees' registration to local human-rights nonprofits. "Our current plan is that during registration, attendees will be given an option regarding which charity they prefer for their 10 percent and will also be given the option to make an additional donation to their charity of choice."
While some took to Twitter to express their support for WiCyS, or the dire need for more inclusive events (like WiCyS) in Tennessee, others expressed their dismay, raised safety concerns, and said they won't show up.
Epiq Global's Miller, who is a member of the WiCyS Equity Advocacy Committee, said during the three months of meetings about the conference location, she worked to "raise awareness with the WiCyS board as to the seriousness of these concerns."
"I can't help but feel that while those concerns I and others shared in various sessions were heard, they were not given the credibility they deserve," Miller said, in a separate statement about WiCyS response. "This is not just an LGBTQ+ issue, it is an equality and safety issue that spans many of the intersected identities for whom the organization seeks to advocate." ®