Closing the gap

Integrating more Lebanese women into the workforce is an economic imperative

Imagine that you are thrown into a fist fight against a fully abled opponent, but one of your hands has been tied behind your back. Your ability to compete would be reduced by at least half making your chances of winning pretty slim.

This analogy, with Lebanon as the fighter, illustrates the difficulty of having a competitive economy when a significant portion of the population is inactive in the labor force.

Today, in 2015, many countries still struggle with issues relating to the equal representation of women in the workforce. This is demonstrated by the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap 2014 report, which estimated that it would take 81 years to completely seal the gap.

Lebanon, which ranked 135 out of the 142 countries surveyed in the WEF’s report, is perhaps centuries from closing that gap, with women constituting only about 25 percent of those employed, according to a 2007 Central Administration of Statistics (CAS) report.

There is a correlation between the percentage of women employed in a country and that country’s GDP growth rates

We now know that there is a correlation between the percentage of women employed in a country and that country’s GDP growth rates: Countries with a narrow gender gap have more economic productivity.

Faced with such a reality, women’s advancement in the workforce in Lebanon becomes more than a human rights issue or an issue of fairness: it becomes an economic imperative.

With the dire state of its economy, Lebanon must fully capitalize on all its resources, starting with its women.

What adds fuel to the fire is that Lebanese women are highly educated, with women constituting 55 percent of university students. The loss of productivity incurred when these educated women do not utilize these skills is inexcusable.

Many international studies have also linked a high representation of women in top management positions with better performances for those corporations placing them there, and for the country’s GDP in the final outcome. According to Credit Suisse’s CS Gender 3000: Women in Senior Management report, companies with a higher than average percentage of female board members outperformed those with fewer women on their boards by 30 percent.

In Lebanon, the number of women CEOs or women in top management positions is very small. Corporations in Lebanon should therefore wake up to the benefits of advancing women to top managerial positions for both themselves and for the country as whole. They would be wise to implement policies which would make the workplace a friendlier place for women, such as flexible working hours and parental leave where both partners could take paid time off work to rear their child, knowing their job is secure when they return.

The journey towards the global advancement of women in the workforce is admittedly long, more so in Lebanon where their representation is well below the average and where communal structures tend to hold women down and perceive their primary role as that of a mother while a career is always secondary (see “An obstacle course“), but we need to start somewhere.

The country as a whole needs to stop viewing this issue as merely a symbolic one raised once a year, on International Women’s day, and see it for the economic issue that it is.

Corporations can and should do their part, but major change must be driven by government initiative

Corporations can and should do their part, but major change must be driven by government initiative. A national strategy must be developed whereby women are encouraged to enter and remain in the workforce, and not forced to exit early when they are too pressured by society’s expectations of them as caregivers.

This strategy should include replacing laws that discriminate against women, such as the personal statuses law and the NSSF law, and enacting laws that protect women in the workplace and foster their sense of empowerment, such as laws prohibiting sexual harassment or ones that guarantee women equal opportunity in being hired.

As a country, starting from the individual, moving on to civil society, corporations and the government, we need to keep advocating the equal representation of women in the workforce until Lebanon’s women rise and the economy rises with them. Only then can Lebanon fully compete in the fist fight, maximizing the use of its full capacities.

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