“I even believe that a woman is more powerful than a man,” said young activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Malala Yousafzai to talk show host Jon Stewart last week.

Powerful and truly inspirational words, especially coming from a 16-year-old victim of violence.  Her comments left millions speechless (including the not-often-speechless Mr. Stewart) as she spoke eloquently about the power of educating girls. If you haven’t seen the interview, I recommend you do.

This past Friday was the United Nations’ International Day of the Girl and just recently the breakthrough documentary “Girl Rising” began screening worldwide, using the power of film and storytelling to demonstrate a simple truth: educate girls and you will change the world. The message is clear, now what are we going to do about it?

As our world transforms into a more connected network of people, processes, data and things – what we call the Internet of Everything – the opportunities that exist for countries, businesses, individuals and societies at large is significant.  In order for this vision to become a reality, access to education is not the only thing required for our girls – innovation that creates exposure and intrigue in science, technology and math is critical.

We need a highly-trained and ICT-skilled workforce of the future with women and girls at the forefront.  Currently, there is an enormous skills gap around the world. According to the World Bank, there will be an estimated two million unfilled ICT-related jobs globally in 10 years.  Within that skills gap exists an even more daunting gender gap: there are 200 million fewer women online than men; only 23% of workers in STEM-related jobs are women; and, women account for 20% fewer IT specialists.

These seem like overwhelming statistics!  But imagine what might happen when you provide young women (and men) with the skills they need to succeed in the Internet of Everything. There are a growing number of places where innovative approaches are making a difference.

Take the Middle East.  In Saudi Arabia, unemployment is a serious issue, 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 in non-technical fields and many workplaces do not allow men and women to work together.  Yet, the number of girls and women enrolled in Cisco’s Networking Academy program (which teaches networking skills and provides job certifications) is higher in the Middle East than in any other region around the world.  In Saudi Arabia, it has reached 42 percent, significantly higher than our global average!

Effat University, a leading non-profit institution in Saudi Arabia dedicated to women’s education is contributing to this shift.  Effat became the first women’s university in Saudi Arabia to offer an engineering degree. Now, the Networking Academy program there has expanded to five women’s universities in the country and Effat is partnering with Duke University on STEM curriculum.  More than 85 percent of participants have either found job or decided to pursue a master’s degree.  Communications technologies like Facebook and Skype also enable them to work from home as well as connect with one another.

According Dr. Akila Sarirete, director of the Academy and chair of the Computer Science Department, seven years ago, that was impossible.

Providing girls with access to women who are successful in the technology industry is an effective way to ignite their passion for IT and to encourage them to consider IT as a career.  In the U.S., NPower is partnering with the Girl Scouts to offer a middle school speaker series and “Day of Shadow” events to spark interest and excitement in technology.  And many companies, including Cisco as a founding member, are involved in the White House STEM mentoring initiative, US2020.  Recently a few dozen Silicon Valley area girls had a chance to literally get their hands dirty by taking apart technology at Cisco’s headquarters and figuring out how it works.

The programs with the most success build upon an active university community, tailor their approach to suit women’s learning tendencies, and emphasize the soft skills girls and women need to succeed.

Students see the skills as helpful beyond ICT careers. Burcu Gürlen in Serbia, 18, hopes to become an anesthesia technician. She enrolled in the CCNA Discovery course because she believes it will set her apart with desirable technical skills. “If I start in the industry with this information,” she said, “I will be one step ahead of my colleagues because IT is effective in every field and in this way I will be ahead of them.  We are living in a technology era and I believe that I can progress faster than my peers in every field thanks to this education.”

Now, THERE is how innovation in education led to a Girl Rising!


Blair Christie

Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer