01/17/2013 07:06 pm ET Updated Nov 22, 2013

Leading by Example: Female IT Experts in Saudi Arabia

Dr. Akila Sarirete leads by example at the Cisco Academy at Effat University. The mission of the university is to prepare women to be leaders in Saudi Arabian society. As Director of the academy and assistant professor and chair of the Computer Science Department, Dr. Akila shows her students that an effective, experienced professional can earn the respect and admiration of her peers—both men and women—with hard work, dedication, and knowledge.

Effat University is a leading private nonprofit institution of higher education for women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In 2004, the university adopted the Cisco Networking Academy curriculum to expand employment options for women and help advance their careers. Under the leadership of Dr. Akila, the program has become a training ground for the next generation of women leaders in Saudi Arabia.

High Unemployment for Women with Degrees

Unemployment is a serious issue in Saudi Arabia, especially among women with university degrees. An estimated 30 percent of Saudi women looking for jobs cannot find them and 78 percent of those who are unemployed have university degrees. Women typically work as teachers, nurses, or secretaries and many workplaces do not allow men and women to work together.

A Cisco certification significantly expands potential careers for in-demand IT professionals in a range of sectors, for private companies and public institutions. Women who earn the globally recognized certification, go to the top of the list for consideration by employers.

Women Leaders in Saudi Arabia

A successful academy is championed locally and Dr. Akila has proven to be a true champion for women at Effat University. Born in Algeria, Dr. Akila received her bachelor’s degree in computer science at Institut National d’Informatique in Algeria and her master’s degree from the University of Quebec. She worked as a software engineer in Canada and the United States before returning to Saudi Arabia to join the faculty at Effat University as a lecturer and an IT supervisor in 2002.

She chose to live in Saudi Arabia to raise her children in a Muslim culture and to be at the forefront of a change in women’s opportunities. “I had a different view of the country,” she said. “I thought women were oppressed. I wanted to make a difference in women’s education.”

As part of a women’s organization under the leadership of Effat University President Dr. Haifa Jamal Al-Lail, she saw that women leaders were all around her. With the Cisco Networking Academy she could help those women gain status outside of the university with highly valued ICT skills. Networking Academy attracts university students as well as working IT professionals who wish to advance their careers.

Dr. Akila mentors and challenges her students. When she recommended that Samiah Aouda Al-Ahmadi, a part-time employee in IT support, pursue her Cisco CCNA certification to advance beyond her current position, Samiah took the advice very seriously. The CCNA class was full, so she recruited 5 friends to start a new class. When a new class could not be started, she waited a year, recruited 5 more friends and persuaded Dr. Akila to enroll them. Despite difficulties getting to class due to an unreliable driver, Samia completed her studies after 2 years and received a promotion in her job at King Abdulaziz University. She hopes to earn her master’s degree in IT and become a professor.

“The good thing with the students is they listen,” Dr. Akila said. “It’s not only about education, it’s about behavior. It’s a life change. When they start and they finish, they change. They are more comfortable talking to men, thinking about issues, being outside.”

Success Expands Opportunities for Women and Men

The success of the program has challenged views about what areas of study should be offered for women. Effat became the first women’s university to offer an engineering degree, partnering with Duke University, and other universities are following suit with more majors offered for women. “Seven years ago, that was impossible,” Dr. Akila said. “Parents didn’t accept it.”

With Dr. Akila’s leadership, the Cisco Networking Academy program has expanded to 5 women’s universities and 2 men’s universities in Saudi Arabia. At first, men’s universities were reluctant to adopt the program due to concerns that a women’s curriculum would be less rigorous or challenging. When the university leaders met Dr. Akila, her knowledge and enthusiasm won them over. They discovered that Cisco curriculum and certification means one thing, no matter where in the world it is offered or by whom.

“Dr. Akila is an energetic fixture in the region,” said Hashem Shahwan, Cisco Academy Manager for Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Lebanon. “She is seen everywhere, known by everyone.” In 2009, she was named the Best Regional Instructor for Cisco’s Middle East, North Africa, and Pakistan Region. She has provided translations and validated translations for the Cisco Networking Academy.

A Changing Workplace

Since Dr. Akila arrived in Saudi Arabia, she has watched the job market change with more companies considering women for positions traditionally held by men. A government incentive program to promote hiring Saudi employees awards companies with 1 point for every Saudi man and 2 points for each Saudi woman they hire. Some financial institutions now have offices where men and women work together.

Most students who have completed Networking Academy courses have found work, according to Dr. Akila, as IT support, instructors and trainers, or they are pursuing higher degrees. One CCNA alumnae joined the Effat University IT support team before finding a management position at a bank in Saudi Arabia.

Her students have changed as well. Women in Saudi Arabia cannot drive and most of her students are not allowed out at night. Communications technologies like Facebook and Skype empower them to work together from home. They stick to their classes and complete their studies no matter how long it takes.

“They are really proactive now,” she said.“They volunteer, they organize programs, they contact companies and get jobs before they graduate.” One recent graduate joined the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and won an award for her social media programs. Another graduate is an analyst of social media. “They are not afraid to be in public.”

Lina El-Shiny, a computer sciences student at Effat University dreams of being an instructor. “Technology is the future,” she said. “It’s all about the network. We are all a part of the human race. We are ONE.”

IT Experts in Saudi Arabia

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