In a man’s world

Lebanese women defying gender stereotypes in a quest for success

This article is part of Executive’s special report on women in the workplace. Read more stories as they’re published here, or pick up March’s issue at newsstands in Lebanon.

Najwa Layan — Police officer

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Journey and motivation

 Ever since she was a child, Najwa Layan has been attracted to military life. She says that three years ago she heard there was a call for women to join the Internal Security Forces, so she applied. There were specific criteria for entering, and she met them all.

Others’ perceptions

Layan notes that her entire family supported her decision, telling her she had a strong personality that would fit perfectly with the job. Her male colleagues have also been extremely supportive, helping her with training in the street and teaching her many things. 

Obstacles

Layan notes that in the past people were surprised to see a woman working as a police officer in the streets. Now, however, after the government began encouraging female applicants, the public has gotten used to the sight of a female police officer. She says that many people are actually happy to deal with a policewoman.

Future plans

Layan says she enjoys every moment spent on the job, and thus doesn’t imagine herself leaving it to do something else. She wants to work on developing herself and hopes to rise as far in the field as possible.

Advice

Layan encourages other women to join the ISF, saying that the job helps to develop a strong personality.

 

Elsy Abou Zeid — Mechanical technician at Volvo

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Journey and motivation

Elsy Abou Zeid was raised with three brothers and 10 cousins, all boys. She grew up playing boys games in order to fit in and have a chance to spend time with them. As she grew older, her interest in things traditionally reserved for men only grew. 

After earning her baccalaureate degree she held several internships, but it was one she did at a garage that interested her most. This is why she decided to become a mechanical engineer and begin her studies at the Lebanese branch of the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (CNAM). 

Others’ perceptions

As the only girl in her class, Abou Zeid felt like an intruder in the beginning, but things started getting better for her.

Her father, having seen where her interest lay from a young age, was supportive of her chosen career path. Her mother, however, was reluctant because she viewed the job as harsh. As for her colleagues, Abou Zeid notes the younger ones are the most accepting. 

Obstacles

The only difficulty Abou Zeid faces is the physical constraints. She explains, for instance, that it is hard for her to move a 100 kilogram engine. However, she strongly believes that being a woman sparks some welcome curiosity among employers’.

Future plans

Abou Zeid is intent on continually working to evolve in this job, and hopes to some day open her own auto repair shop.

Advice

To women still hesitating on whether to pursue this path, Abou Zeid says that if a woman has a passion for automotive work, she shouldn’t think twice.

 

Cynthia Bitar — Owner and executive chef at Nazira Catering

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Journey and motivation

Cynthia Bitar’s mother, Nazira, was one of the first women to enroll in the hospitality school in Dekwaneh, graduating in 1967. Nazira then worked in the restaurant at Al Bustan Hotel in Beit Meri, and later gave cooking classes for years. Thanks to her mother, Bitar grew up immersed in the world of cooking.

In 1997, Bitar decided to study at the Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon, a school specializing in culinary arts and hospitality. She came back to Lebanon in order to develop the family catering company, which Bitar explains was the first one in Lebanon.

Others’ perceptions

 Bitar says that in France, men are more accepting of women working as chefs, whereas in Lebanon she sees a lot more sexism.

Obstacles

According to Bitar, there are several obstacles for female chefs, compared to their male counterparts. First, there are the physical constraints, with the heavy lifting required and the long working hours. Women, says Bitar, need to work more and do more in order to prove their professionalism.

Future projects

Bitar has plans to begin working on her first book, as well as give cooking class. She also would like to expand her catering company outside of Lebanon.

Advice

Bitar believes that women should be confident and professional. For her,  cooking is not just an ordinary job, it’s a passion, and chefs should fully immerse themselves in their work.

 

Rola Hoteit — Pilot at Middle East Airlines

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Journey and motivation 

While still a mathematics student at the American University of Beirut, a friend jokingly showed Rola Hoteit a newspaper advertisement for a pilot position at MEA. She took it as a challenge and she sat for the exam and passed.

Others’ perceptions

Hoteit believes that men’s perception of women pilots is changing with time, even though there are still less female pilots in the Arab world than in Europe. Twenty years after joining MEA, she is still the only female pilot in the company. She explains that some aircraft operators still call her “sir” when communicating with her.

Obstacles

 At first, Hoteit’s father disapproved of her career choice, hoping she would continue her mathematics studies. However, she eventually succeeded in convincing him it was the right choice and now he is very proud of her. As for her colleagues, Hoteit says that her first two years as copilot were difficult, as others weren’t used to seeing a woman in the cockpit.

Future projects

She plans to finish her master’s degree in philosophy, and hopes to open a bookstore in Lebanon.

Advice

Hoteit directs advice at men, saying, “Let women dream, they are capable of doing anything.”

 

Nancy Arbid — Aerospace engineer

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Journey and motivation

While studying mechatronics at Hariri Canadian University, Nancy Arbid enjoyed her time as an intern with Middle East Airlines. So, after she finished her master’s degree, she applied to work there. Arbid is still the only female aerospace engineer at the company.

Others’ perceptions

Arbid explains that initially her parents did not know exactly what she was doing. Now, however, they are proud of her and her accomplishments.

Obstacles

She says that while it took some time for her male colleagues to accept her on the team, the work environment is currently much better and her colleagues now listen to her opinions.

Future projects

She hopes to obtain certification from the European Aviation Safety Agency.

Advice

Arbid says it’s a very challenging job, but male colleagues should be given some time to get used to women making their way in this work environment that is traditionally occupied by men.

 

Diana Salameh — Winemaker at Domaine Wardy and others

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Journey and motivation

Growing up under her grandparents’ grape vines, it felt only natural for Diana Salameh to study oenology at the Institut universitaire de la vigne et du vin in Dijon, France. She received her bachelor’s degree in 1992, and later earned a specialized diploma in oenology.

Others’ perceptions

Salameh says that at first her parents thought she had chosen to study oenology in order to leave Lebanon indefinitely, because the wine sector was highly underdeveloped in the country at that time.

Obstacles

According to Salameh, winemaking as a career choice is still relatively new in Lebanon, so a preference has not developed for male winemakers, compared to France where she says it’s been considered a job for men for a long time. As for the agricultural sector in general, Salameh claims that men still have problems with being led by a woman.

Future projects

Salameh wants to work on bettering the quality of wine in Lebanon, while at the same time make it available to everyone.

Advice

She says that someone should only choose this career if they have a passion for it, because it’s physically very demanding.

 

Christelle Yared — General Manager at MSCA – M. Special Car Armoring

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Journey and motivation

When Christelle Yared was finishing her bachelor’s degree in business and management at Saint Joseph University in Beirut, she took the challenge to relaunch her father’s vehicle armoring company in order to upgrade the car of one of her father’s previous clients. In two months, she succeeded in building a team, finding a location to carry out work, identifying providers for the car parts and delivering the car to the client. For two years, the company was only working on one or two cars a year, which made it possible for Yared to focus on developing herself and learning different techniques.

Others’ perceptions

Yared notes that the team initially had trouble being led by a younger woman. With time, however, they ended up accepting her. She explains that even the suppliers questioned what a woman was doing in this field. Clients now only have doubts for about five minutes, as they are quickly convinced by her professionalism and passion for her work.

Obstacles

Her biggest obstacle has been gaining her clients and providers’ trust. Yared worked very hard the first two years, which kept her away from her family, friends and social life. But she says that it was her way of showing everyone her determination to succeed.

Future projects

She wants to develop and expand the company into Africa.

Advice

Yared advises women to be determined in whatever they do. Women can do anything, she says, and can even be stronger than men in fields considered “traditionally male”.

Clarification: Diana Salameh is also a winemaker and consultant at other wineries, like Atibaia where the picture was taken. 

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