Can a Cisco certificate boost gender equality in the Middle East? More women in Saudi Arabia are able to complete higher education, but they still have a difficult time finding gainful employment. Depending on the source cited, the unemployment rate for Saudi women is as high as 34 percent, five times the unemployment of men in this nation of 28 million.
Scholarships for women to study at home and abroad have surged the past decade, but far too many women still graduate from college only to find themselves sitting at home. Several factors are behind women’s unemployment in Saudi Arabia: society’s frowning upon unrelated men and women mingling in public, work and schools, as well as other societal attitudes towards women related to the fact they cannot vote or drive.
Cisco is one company working to increase professional opportunities for women under the constraints Saudi society imposes on anyone living and working in the country. Throughout the Middle East, Cisco has worked with universities, technical colleges and education ministries to embed technical training within these schools’ curricula. The results could add up to a more technically-savvy workforce, better jobs for women and more long-term business opportunities for the Silicon Valley-based networking equipment giant. To learn a little more, I interviewed Cisco’s Nevine ElKadi via telephone from her Cairo office.
“Information technology is a major part of our lives, and people who are left behind will never be able to compete in this global economy.” – Nevine ElKadi, Senior Manager of Corporate Affairs, Middle East and Africa, Cisco
The Middle East lags behind much of the world in opportunities for technology training and, even more worrisome, patent filings. And if half of a country’s population has difficulty participating in the workforce, that is also a drag on the economy. According to ElKadi, the foundation starts with access to the internet: a 10 percent increase in access to broadband within a nation’s population translates into a 1.4 percent increase in GDP. But the ability to access the internet from home is not enough.
In steps Cisco. Back in 2004, the company began to work with education ministries and universities to incorporate the Cisco Networking Academy curriculum within their academic programs to boost career options for women. Unemployment in the Middle East is often higher for women who have a university degree—according to Cisco’s data, of the women unemployed in Saudi Arabia, 78 percent completed higher education. When I asked ElKadi about local governments’ receptiveness, she replied that education ministries’ bureaucrats were, overall, positive. Considering the Arab Spring upheaval the past few years, such a response should not be a surprise—unemployment across all age groups has been a driving factor behind the protests throughout the region.
Throughout the Middle East, Cisco supports 630 of these networking academies, where 1,420 instructors work: 22 percent of whom are female, which is particularly important in Saudi Arabia considering classes in that country are segregated by gender. Of the 70,000 currently enrolled in these academies, 36 percent are women, and that proportion is growing. The numbers are particularly encouraging in Saudi Arabia: 42 percent of students in these academies are women. Most of the courses are online, so someone in a small town can access the class from her home with an instructor who is based in Jeddah or Riyadh.
So where is the demand, I asked ElKadi? For networking fundamentals, that low-hanging fruit has been taken care of. But Cisco has found employers need workers who have certifications and strong backgrounds in technologies such as VOIP—and more women are signing up for those advanced courses.
The success Cisco has experienced in the Middle East for almost 10 years, along with other technology-driven companies, demonstrates how companies seeking to become more “socially responsible” (or whatever the preferred term is), or even engender social change, can do it best using their core products, expertise and people. More women who have access to programs, such as those Cisco sponsors, are out of the home and boosting the local economy; more local firms can therefore find more customers; and Cisco will be able to entrench themselves in these emerging markets for the long run. And considering the restraints women endure in Saudi Arabia on a daily basis, the best path towards having more of a say within their country is to have an even bigger piece of the economic pie—and boasting much needed technical skills their brothers may very well lack.
Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is the editor of GreenGoPost.com and frequently writes about business sustainability strategy. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable Brands, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).
[Image credit: Cisco]