An obstacle course

Lebanese women are striving to confront gender discrimination in the workforce

Joseph Kaï | Executive

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.

True story: Two candidates are applying for the post of development officer at a well established institution in Lebanon. Candidate A has two years working experience over candidate B, nine years in total, more international experience and enjoys a wider relevant network of key contacts, having chaired charities in the institution’s field.

While candidate A would seem like the obvious choice for the position, the institution still hired candidate B, a male. Why? As candidate A, a woman, later learned from an inside source, the hiring director feared that her gender made her an “unstable” investment: that, while both candidates were single at the time, she would get married and choose to quit her career.

Workplace discrimination comes in many forms, from racial, to age or sexual orientation, but discrimination against women in the workforce affects half the global population and therefore significantly impacts economies worldwide.

Discrimination against women in the workforce is not restricted to Lebanon, and the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap 2014 index shows that the gender gap for economic participation and economic activity is 60 percent worldwide and would take 81 years to completely close, if everything else remains the same.

What is known from the Central Administration of Statistics’ Living Conditions Survey of 2007 is that women make up only 25 percent of the Lebanese workforce

Beyond its human rights implications, the issue of women in the workforce is significant because studies show that there is a loss in economic productivity when women are weakly represented in the labor force. According to Unlocking the Full Potential of Women in the US Economy, a study conducted by McKinsey and Company in 2011, “the additional productive power power of women entering the workforce since the 1970s accounts for about a quarter of current GDP.”

While no such research exists in Lebanon, what is known from the Central Administration of Statistics’ (CAS) Living Conditions Survey of 2007 is that women make up only 25 percent of the Lebanese workforce. The country has several challenges to address within the workplace, and at the societal level, before it can begin to close the gap and improve its economy. “The entire national economy, the regional economy even, is suffering because you are losing half the talent and half the productivity that could come from women,” says Dima Jamali, professor of management and associate dean for faculty at the Sulieman S. Olayan School of Business at the American University of Beirut.

University years: a head start 

According to the Global Gender Gap 2014 report, which rates countries on four different sub indexes, including women’s educational attainment, Lebanon is in the top percentile when it comes to tertiary education. This is supported by CAS statistics which show that women constitute 55 percent of students in higher education.

Such an investment in education, which is also true for women in the Arab region, is not being translated in their careers. “Women in the Arab region are gaining more university education than a decade ago, but this is reflected neither in their employment nor into their advancement to higher level managerial positions,” says Jamali.

Early career days 

After graduating from university, both genders initially begin applying for posts in their chosen profession. According to Rana Salhab, partner at Deloitte & Touche and an advocate for women’s advancement, while the hiring process among genders is almost even in most professions, fields such as engineering are skewed to men. According to numbers from the Lebanese Order of Physicians (for all cazas except North Lebanon) male physicians far outweigh females with only 2,652 females doctors in Lebanon out of a total of 11,341.

According to Roula El-Masri, gender equality program manager at ABAAD, a Lebanese resource center for gender equality, hiring is not equal among both genders when some fields are perceived as “men’s work”, while others are the domain of women. “Women are mainly employed in the services industry, in advertising or public relations, or in the fields of education or nursing. This is a form of discrimination as not all careers opportunities are equally open to them,” says Masri. CAS’s 2007 Living Conditions Survey shows that 64 percent of working women are indeed employed in the services sector versus 34.2 percent of employed males.

The country’s political scene is dominated by men.“Even if we take [the 128 member] parliament as an example — there are four female parliamentarians. In a country where women are as educated and as present in public life as in Lebanon, it’s a very surprising statistic,” says Lama Fakih, the Syria and Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW). 

Educated women dropping off 

After the first few years of work, the number of women in the labor force begins to taper off. “When you move forward along the career path a little bit, women exit the workforce earlier than men. This is why the percentage of women in your organization pyramid, which starts off as almost 50/50, gets less and, globally, women in leadership positions are barely a handful,” explains Salhab.

As per CAS’ survey, only 29.8 percent of Lebanese women surveyed were economically active between the ages of 23 and 29. That percentage tapers off to 24.3 between the ages of 35 and 39.

“A woman’s role is primarily perceived to be at home”

The first age bracket correlates with the age where some people consider getting married and starting a family. While legislation in countries such as Sweden, Canada or the UK see child rearing as a shared responsibility — awarding both parents leave from work when their child is born — the Arab region, Lebanon included, does not. “A woman’s role is primarily perceived to be at home, raising the children and managing the household. If she is to work outside of the home, it is often viewed as secondary to her role at home or only to complement her husband financially when economic times are tough,” says Masri.

These responsibilities make maintaining a career difficult for most women. “There is a lot of pressure on them to be available for the role of mother and be available for motherhood and domestic roles, as opposed to productive roles in the workplace. Women feel and see this pressure and this is the primary explanation, from a cultural and social perspective, as to why women’s educational attainment is not reflected in their labor force representation,” explains Jamali. 

According to HRW’s Fakih, once women do opt out of their careers for marriage purposes — globally — it is not temporary. “Even in cases where women do divorce, they have a very difficult time getting back into the labor force after this prolonged absence,” she adds.

This early exit from women in the workplace could explain the low numbers for the representation of women in the labor force.

Not an easy path

Other women decide to balance both roles, despite the difficulties. All the women in top positions profiled by Executive for this report said that balancing their personal life with their careers is a challenging task, one that women at all levels struggle with.

Women are at a career disadvantage in that they have to also give time to their obligations as caregivers, within the context of Lebanese society, while men can focus only on their career. “Women who do remain in the labor force take on positions that allow them to balance their private responsibilities with their work responsibilities. So that means, in many cases and in many industries, not working long hours, not having travel commitments and not being at a senior position,” says Fakih.

Such consequences place women at a disadvantage when it comes to investing time and developing in their careers. “There is also a glass ceiling which we cannot deny and a certain bias in promotions mainly because the top levels of organizations are usually dominated by men who think and make promotions with conscious and unconscious biases. There are multiple factors we need to be aware of,” says Salhab.

As Salhab explains, these multiple factors include assuming that a leadership position requires a man or that an equally qualified woman would not be as committed as a man for a top management role because of her domestic obligations. In the Lebanese context, this would imply that a woman might get called to go home if a child is sick or she may not be able to travel and leave her children.

An associated challenge which women face in the workforce is the discrimination in pay between them and their male colleagues for the same job. This is a global issue — the pay gap in the United States for example is 80 cents to the dollar — and although there are no statistics for this in the Lebanese labor force, the CAS’ 2007 survey notes a 6 percent gender pay gap overall, exceeding 30 percent in some employment sectors.

So now what? 

In the face of such career obstacles and discrimination, it would be easy to give up on the advancement of women in the workplace but this attitude would not be conducive to change or growth in the economy.

The basic step for change in Lebanon is the empowerment of women at all levels

The career women and experts interviewed agree that the basic step for change in Lebanon is the empowerment of women at all levels. This need for empowerment starts with laws that discriminate against women in their private life encroaching on their ability to fully perform in their public life, such as the personal status laws. “We continue to see an undermining of women’s autonomy, of women’s rights, in a way that interferes with their ability to engage in public life,” says Fakih giving a simple example of how women don’t have the authority to open a bank account for their children, which weakens their sense of empowerment and society’s view of them as leaders.

In the tangible sense, laws and policies supporting women in the labor force, at the government and corporate levels, need to be introduced into the system. Nayla Geagea, a lawyer specializing in human rights, explains that up until now, Lebanon doesn’t have a comprehensive legal system that ensures gender equality and it is difficult to create one because there is no real monitoring system that would lead to comprehensive and accurate figures on the workplace environment. This is exemplified by the fact that the most recent national study regarding women’s representation in the workforce, used in this article, is from 2007.

Some laws have been created, such as the law that extends maternity leave from 49 to 79 days which was passed in parliament in April 2014. There are two draft laws being prepared in the framework of women’s rights — one against sexual harassment in the workplace and another for allowing women to have their children and husband as their dependents under NSSF insurance.

Yet, Geagea warns against focusing only on changing laws at the macro level. “Of course we need to talk about a change in the legal framework but at the same time, we need to keep in mind how long it takes to achieve legal change. This means, other initiatives should start at the level of the corporations. Women who are working in these environments should impose standards and minimum conditions,” she says. 

Salhab suggests that corporations could adopt female friendly policies such as part time or flexible working hours to their own advantage, giving an example of how a dedicated and hardworking female colleague in Deloitte’s Lebanon office was promoted to director, despite her working part time hours.

A policy that helps ensure an equal representation of women in top management positions is the quota system, which guarantees a percentage of women in certain positions. It is a law in some countries like France and a voluntary corporate policy in others such as Germany. In Lebanon, suggests Salhab, gender quotas could be initiated at the level of the parliament and the ministries and in the form of targets in corporations (increase the number of women by x percent) as that would better take into account the situation in the country.

The path to an equal and fair representation of both genders in the workplace is long and progress has been slow both globally and in Lebanon. Yet, the fact that more people in Lebanon are publicly addressing issues of women’s rights, and recognizing the economic importance of increasing women’s representation in the workforce, is certainly a step forward on that journey.

Nabila Rahhal

Nabila is Executive's hospitality, tourism and retail editor. She also covers other topics she's interested in such as education and mental health. Prior to joining Executive, she worked as a teacher for eight years in Beirut. Nabila holds a Masters in Educational Psychology from the American University of Beirut.

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