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Exclusive: Cisco’s Reem Asaad on female leadership, diversity, gender quotas and her goals for 2023

CNME Editor Mark Forker spoke to Reem Asaad, Vice President – Middle East & Africa, at Cisco, to find out what she believes are the key ingredients needed to be an effective leader, what unique skills female leaders bring to the table, her opinion on gender quotas – and her main goals for Cisco in 2023.

Can you tell our readers more about your own leadership style, and what you believe are some of the key ingredients that are required to be an effective leader?

Effective leadership requires confidence, but it’s not about being the loudest voice in the room.

Rather, it’s about recognising where you can add value and owning it. Throughout my professional life, I have learned the importance of knowing my worth, believing in my current abilities, and striving to reach my potential. Yet, I also recognise the value of asking for help when needed.

A good leader is not afraid to ask questions and seeks out opportunities for self-education. By continuously learning, leaders can form diverse, well-informed perspectives and earn their rightful seat at the table.

According to a Women’s Leadership Study by KPMG, confidence is an attribute that women themselves identify as the key to leadership success.

However, throughout their professional careers, women struggle with what they characterise as a lack of it. According to this study, 67% of women said they needed more support building confidence to feel they can be leaders.

In addition to confidence, there are several skills that I believe are essential for good leadership.

Empathy is critical as it allows leaders to connect with their teams and understand their needs and concerns.

Leaders who are open to new ideas and embrace change foster a culture of innovation and growth.

Humility is also key as it enables leaders to listen and embrace new ways of working. Lastly, maintaining authenticity is crucial for building trust and credibility with team members. Leaders who trust their instincts and communicate transparently are more likely to inspire and motivate their team.

We know there have been some outdated stereotypes aimed at female leaders, especially in the political arena in terms of having too much empathy, but surely empathy is an important trait to have when leading a team – and what are some of the stereotypes that still exist that anger you as a prominent female leader in the IT space? 

Empathy is an essential trait for any leader, regardless of their gender, as it enables them to understand and connect with their team members, build trust, and create a positive and supportive workplace culture.

Stereotypes that portray empathy as a weakness in female leaders are outdated and destructive, and they should be challenged and debunked.

In fact, studies have shown that female leaders tend to score higher on measures of emotional intelligence, which includes empathy, than their male counterparts, and that this can lead to better team performance and job satisfaction.

As a female leader in the technology industry, I have encountered many stereotypes and biases throughout my career that can be frustrating and disappointing.

One common stereotype is the idea that women are not suited for leadership roles in IT because they lack the technical expertise or are not ‘aggressive’ enough to succeed in a highly competitive environment.

This stereotype not only undermines the achievements and qualifications of female leaders in this industry, but also perpetuates the idea that certain traits or characteristics are inherently gendered.

Another stereotype that is particularly damaging is the notion that when women are hard driving or assertive, they are perceived as aggressive; whereas men who exhibit the same behavior are seen as confident and strong.

This stereotype not only diminishes the authority of female leaders but also reinforces gendered expectations around behavior and communication styles.

In fact, the key to success is to learn these so-called “soft” skills, which have historically been associated with women but are critical for every leader to possess.

A great book by Julia Boorstin called “When Women Lead: What They Achieve, Why They Succeed, and How We Can Learn from Them” includes interviews with thousands of female CEOs and leaders and found the most common personality trait observed in successful female leaders is leading with empathy.

What are some of the characteristics and skills that female leaders bring to the table that perhaps their male counterparts don’t have?

Research has shown that female leaders bring a unique set of skills and characteristics to the table that are different from those of their male counterparts.

According to the Harvard Business Review, women outscored men in 17 of the 19 capabilities that differentiate excellent leaders from average or poor ones.

One of the key attributes of female leaders is their emotional intelligence, which is the ability to recognise and understand emotions in themselves and others.

Women are often more adept at reading and interpreting nonverbal cues, which can lead to better communication, conflict resolution, and teamwork.

Another characteristic that female leaders bring to the table is their collaborative approach to leadership.

Women tend to prioritise collaboration and consensus-building over competition and individual achievement.

This results in more diverse and inclusive perspectives, better decision-making, and stronger team relationships.

Female leaders also have a higher level of empathy, which allows them to have a more supportive and nurturing leadership style.

Furthermore, women are often better multitaskers and are skilled at balancing multiple priorities and responsibilities.

This can result in increased productivity and efficiency, as well as improved time management.

Female leaders are also more risk-averse and cautious, which can lead to more thoughtful and strategic decision-making. This can help minimise risks and ensure long-term success.

We know that the IT industry has made significant progress at leveling the playing field in the IT ecosystem, but the fact remains that 75% of the global IT workforce is male. What are the best practices that you believe need to be implemented to really foster change? 

Achieving gender parity in the IT industry requires a comprehensive and sustained effort to implement best practices that foster change.

Encouraging more women to pursue STEM education, creating a culture of inclusion, addressing bias and discrimination, promoting work-life balance, and ensuring pay equity are just a few of the strategies that can help to achieve this goal.

By working together, we can create a more diverse and inclusive IT ecosystem that benefits everyone.

One key strategy is to encourage more women to pursue STEM education and to provide them with the necessary resources and support to enter and succeed in the IT industry.

This can involve promoting girls’ education in STEM subjects, providing scholarships, mentorship, and sponsorship programs, and creating more opportunities for women to gain work experience and build their skills.

We should be proud that the Middle East is leading the numbers of Women in STEM – for instance, in the last fiscal year, our IT skills program, Cisco Networking Academy trained more than 240,000 female learners across the Middle East and Africa – representing 34% of total learners.

Similarly, UNESCO figures show that 57% of STEM graduates in Arab countries are women, and 61% in the UAE.

Another important best practice is to create a culture of inclusion that values diversity and provides equal opportunities for all individuals.

This can involve implementing policies and procedures that address unconscious bias and discrimination, promoting diversity and inclusion in hiring practices, and providing opportunities for women to move up the career ladder and into leadership roles.

Additionally, promoting work-life balance and ensuring pay equity are essential practices to encourage more women to enter and stay in the IT industry.

Flexible work arrangements, such as remote work, part-time schedules, and job-sharing opportunities can help women balance their work and personal responsibilities, while regular pay audits and transparent and equitable compensation policies can help address pay disparities.

The issue of quotas has been a contentious topic, with many feeling it erodes the process of meritocracy, but many are strong advocates of it to quickly address the balance that exists, what are your opinions on quotas?!

While meritocracy is a fundamental principle, we cannot deny the fact that certain groups have historically faced barriers and biases that have prevented them from reaching their full potential.

Quotas can serve as a tool to break down these barriers and create opportunities for underrepresented groups to succeed. According to the UN and the UN’s Gender Quota Portal, legislated gender quotas have a significant positive impact on women’s representation.

However, it is imperative that quotas are implemented in a fair and transparent way, and that they are not used to simply meet a metric without regard for qualifications or ability.

What companies should never do is seek to simply tick a box. As employers, we cannot and should not settle for a candidate simply because of their background – but always hire based on merit.

Ultimately, our goal should be to create a level playing field where everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed based on their skills, experience, and merit.

If we can achieve this, quotas may not be necessary. But until we reach that point, we must continue to explore all tools and strategies that can help us create a more diverse and inclusive workforce.

At Cisco, we strive to have balanced interview panels to learn from each other’s perspectives, but also with the intention to reduce potential bias.

I am proud to have earned my position at Cisco based on my qualifications alone. I do, however, find it important to strive for diverse leadership teams.

Visibility is extremely powerful. We want our employees to see people like them in positions of leadership, so that they too can expand their ambitions.

The decision to appoint someone to such a ranking should not lay with one person alone. There should be consensus from the team, to avoid so-called ‘positive discrimination’.

In terms of your own role as VP at Cisco, can you tell us about your key objectives and goals for 2023? 

One of my objectives as a Cisco VP is to drive economic empowerment of women through access to technology.

Greater access to digital tools and technology can serve to support new means of inclusive, global economic empowerment. For instance, digital technologies can enhance women’s access to finance, with mobile banking enabling them to avoid long journeys.

E-commerce and technology-based businesses offer women more flexibility, helping them to manage home responsibilities alongside paid work. When women tap the full power of digital technologies, vital new opportunities open.

In terms of diversity and inclusion, Cisco aims to increase the representation of underrepresented minority groups, including women, people of color, and people with special needs.

This can be achieved through targeted recruitment efforts, diversity training, and the implementation of inclusive policies and practices.

Within my teams, I will continue working on evolving and enhancing our inclusive workplace culture by fostering a sense of belonging for all employees, regardless of their background or identity.

This is an ongoing process, which involves providing opportunities for employee feedback, creating employee resource groups, and promoting an open and respectful culture of communication.

For instance, this March we have been celebrating the 10th anniversary of Women of Cisco– our global initiative dedicated to the professional development of women.

It was crafted with the aim to attract, develop, retain, and celebrate talented women as part of a competitive and diverse workforce.​

The initiative is very active across the Middle East and Africa organisation and is constantly supporting women in every step of their careers.

Finally, Cisco strives to increase diversity and inclusion in leadership positions, such as at the executive and board levels.

This can involve creating pathways for diverse candidates to advance into leadership roles, providing leadership development and training opportunities, and holding leadership accountable for creating and maintaining an inclusive workplace culture.

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