Cisco’s Reem Asaad: Diversity and inclusion in IT must start with our education systems

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Can you share your journey with us and what inspired you to pursue a career in this industry?

I have always been fascinated by technology and its potential to transform how we experience the world. At the age of 16, I made the decision to move to the United States – in pursuit of an education in IT (which was not yet available in my home country of Egypt). Following this leap of faith, I embarked on my journey with the University of Houston-Downtown, where my passion for business and technology truly flourished, graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration – Computer Information Systems (Summa Cum Laude).

I remained in the United States for 18 years, working in various roles involving financial services and technical consultancy. This included 15 years with American International Group (AIG) as a Project Manager and Technical Consultant. Driven by a personal commitment to advancing local knowledge transfer and growth in the Middle East and Africa, I then returned to Egypt.

A large portion of my career was spent across various roles with Raya Corporation – one of the leading financial investments and IT conglomerates in the region. This included serving as CEO of Raya Customer Experience – a Cairo-based business process outsourcing service provider with operations in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, servicing multi-national and Fortune 500 companies, as well as CEO of Raya Data Center, a public cloud and managed services provider. In these positions of leadership, I acquired the knowledge and experience to drive company growth, digital transformation, and regional market development.

Other positions that I have held at Raya Corporation include Chair of Corporate Sustainability Committee, Board of Directors Corporate Secretary and Director of IT, Investor Relations and Corporate Communication.

In February 2020, I was appointed as the first female and Arab leader in the role of Vice President for Cisco Middle East and Africa. Today, I am responsible for driving the company’s position as a leading technology provider and consultant across the Middle East, Africa, Türkiye, and more recently, my role has also expanded to cover Romania and The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

My role at Cisco focuses on strengthening collaborations with governments, customers, and partners, underpinned by Cisco’s portfolio of solutions to accelerate local digitization agendas. My teams and I are currently working alongside national leadership, industry, and academia in markets such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, Türkiye, South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria, as part of the Cisco Country Digital Acceleration (CDA) program – which aims to transition towards digitally-focused economies, futureproof job roles, and increase GDP.

What challenges have you faced as a woman in IT?

According to Web Summit’s State of Gender Equity in Tech report, almost 50 percent of women globally feel that their workplace isn’t doing enough to combat gender inequality. Additionally, 77 percent of respondents feel that they needed to work harder to prove themselves because of their gender.

These are common experiences faced by many women in IT, although, times are thankfully changing. While workplaces must look into implementing policies that promote inclusion (such as having open forums for discussion, diverse hiring boards and balanced leadership teams), as women in the industry, we must also focus on what is within our immediate power to control.

Rather than viewing challenges as forces of opposition, I have always been taught to focus on turning these challenges into opportunities. Opportunities to learn, grow, and in some cases – be bold and confident to challenge the status quo. There is a phrase: ‘times of struggle create champions’, this means that despite the challenges, we need to adopt the right mindset, have confidence in our ability, and emerging stronger.

What unique contributions do women bring to the IT field?

Commenting more broadly on STEM, according to a report by UNESCO, the inclusion of women promotes scientific excellence and boosts the quality of STEM outcomes – as diverse perspectives lead to greater creativity, help to reduce potential biases, and promote more robust and expansive knowledge transfer.

We are experiencing similar trends in IT, where having women in the workforce is not longer a ‘nice to have’, but mission critical to long-term success. The contribution of women in IT is leading to a boost in innovation, when designing and implementing products and services for increasingly diverse audiences.

When women participate in the IT sector, they are helping to expand the talent pool and contribute towards overall economic growth – crucial in an industry where we are often experiencing a skills shortage in areas such as AI and cybersecurity.

How can the tech industry better support and encourage gender diversity and inclusion?

With schools now introducing subjects such as coding and ethical hacking into their curriculums, young boys and girls are becoming increasingly exposed to new pathways and careers in technology.

In 2023, we saw the UAE playing a pioneering role in inspiring people to embrace the digitization and the wider technology industry. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of UAE and Ruler of Dubai announced that UNESCO has accepted the proposal to mark the 29th of October as the International Day of Programming and the 19th of March as the International Day of Digital Education.

As well as establishing these moments in the calendar to reinforce the importance of technology, expanding learning platforms and skills-to-jobs programs is also essential to building and maintaining a diverse, technology-proficient workforce. In the UAE alone, via Cisco Networking Academy, we are proud to have trained and upskilled more than 105,000 learners in essential IT skills – with an excellent female participate rate of 49%. As industry players, we need to sustain this momentum by collaborating with national leaders and local partners, increasing access and inclusion in the IT sector.

 

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