In Sri Lanka, people often work late at night. Some leave their offices after midnight, but few are women — traditional cultural beliefs prevent them from working the same long hours as men. This didn’t stop Nethmi Kalansooriya and Farha Fathima from completing Cisco Networking Academy courses and becoming the first women hired by a local IT company.
According to a recent International Data Corporation (IDC) study, there will be a shortage of over 400,000 networking professionals in the Asia Pacific region by 2016. Kalhari Kaluarachchi, a program manager in Cisco’s Asia Pacific Social Innovation Group, recognizes that if companies hope to erase this shortage, more women will need to pursue jobs in the IT industry.
“As more people connect to the Internet around the world, more technology jobs will become available,” said Kalhari, who manages the Networking Academy program in Sri Lanka. “We are working hard at promoting more females to get into the industry, even though there are obstacles to finding jobs.”
This is especially true for young women like Nethmi and Farha, who were forced to overcome a widespread belief that women in Sri Lanka cannot complete the same work as men. “Many girls love to do networking, but don’t feel they can pursue a career because it’s very difficult to get a job,” Kalhari said.
Companies in Sri Lanka are also hesitant to hire women, as full-time networking jobs require employees to work late into the night. Traditional society in Sri Lanka does not accept women traveling alone after normal working hours, barring Nethmi and Farha from pursuing the same careers as their male classmates.
Frustrated by these barriers to employment, Kalhari redoubled her efforts to connect young women to IT jobs. She also connected students to the Women Rock IT Cisco TV series, a quarterly event designed to inspire young women to consider careers in IT as well as support and motivate female students already on their journey. The series features prominent women from a wide range of backgrounds at Cisco.
“We faced a big challenge, because the industry was not ready to accept women with their Cisco CCNA certification,” Kalhari said. “I thought it was time to change that.”
While studying at the University of Colombo’s Institute for Human Resources Advancement, Nethmi and Farha took an interest in networking technology. They enrolled in Cisco Networking Academy courses and discovered they had a talent for connecting devices to each other and the Internet.
The young women earned their Cisco CCNA certifications, but were hesitant to apply for jobs. They had the technical skills to succeed in the industry, but were not greeted warmly by local companies.
“I interviewed with one company, and the panel made me feel like I wasn’t competent enough to do the job,” Nethmi said.
“I tried to interview with a couple of partners, but I heard from industry experts that it’s a challenge for women to get into the industry,” Farha said.
But Kalhari knew that the young women could be successful at any IT company in Sri Lanka. She contacted Lalinda Dassanayake, a new entrepreneur and Chief Executive Officer at Micro Solutions, a Cisco partner, to discuss the idea of hiring young women to work in the IT industry. The company already had 10 employees, all of whom had completed Networking Academy courses.
“They told me they wanted to bring in students, but that they’d never hired girls,” Kalhari said. “I said, ‘please try, because we might be successful’.”
Lalinda made the decision to hire both Nethmi, Farha, and two other girls, breaking the cycle of all-male hires and proving that women can be successful in Sri Lanka’s IT workforce.
“The girls were young, talented, and had a willingness to work hard,” Lalinda said. “Most customers prefer to have males, but Nethmi and Farha are very dedicated to their jobs.”
After they were hired, they immediately began training, side-by-side with young men who had studied with them in the Cisco Networking Academy. “When it comes to the technical aspect of the job, women like Nethmi and Farha can come in and work on routers and switches just like the men,” Kalhari said.
They had no issue acclimating to the environment at Micro Solutions, which has been nothing but welcoming to the young women. “I feel like I’m in the industry and that I belong,” Farha said. “I’m not learning as much theory, but I’m getting hands-on practice.” Nethmi also feels that she belongs with the men at Micro Solutions, and that the exposure she’s getting will lead to a long-term career in the industry.
In addition to their full-time work schedules, Nethmi and Farha are also studying at the University of Colombo on weekends to earn their bachelor’s degrees in IT and their Cisco CCIE certifications. The coursework, combined with the work experience they’re receiving at Micro Solutions, is demanding, but it’s a valuable step toward making their dreams a reality.
Although her family initially worried about her safety and acceptance in the industry, Farha says that she “has a goal and is determined to reach it,” no matter what cultural challenges she may face. “I live in a house in Colombo with Nethmi, but my family is very supportive of my studies,” she said.
Nethmi and Farha are among a growing number of women enrolling in Networking Academy courses across the Asia Pacific region. Since the program’s inception in 1997, 28% of students in the region have been women – the second-highest percentage worldwide.
As the young women continue to learn more about network configuration, planning, and troubleshooting at Micro Solutions, Lalinda believes they’re gaining valuable skills for the future. “They have all of the technical skills,” he said. “They’re still learning how to engage with customers and carry themselves in the working environment.” These soft skills, including teamwork and communication, are the foundation of any successful career in networking.
“I know it’s a challenge for women in the industry,” Farha said. “But, if we can do more in Sri Lanka and make employers more aware that ladies can do the same job as men, then we can change the thinking style in the country.”
On April 23, “Women Rock IT” will hold a live Cisco TV broadcast and an event at the University of Moratuwa in Sri Lanka to inspire other girls to pursue a career in networking and support the global effort to ensure gender equality in the IT industry.