When female banking executives discuss their path to the top, the word lucky is almost always mentioned. They were lucky that their experience was without gender discrimination or sexual harassment. They were lucky to have respectful mentors and to get to their positions without any apparent sexism in the way.
“I certainly had a fortunate experience in that throughout my career I never felt discriminated against or put down just because of my gender,” said Bana Akkad Azhari, Lebanon country manager for The Bank of New York Mellon, speaking on the sidelines of the New Arab Woman Forum (NAWF) in Beirut on December 2. The ubiquitous gratitude at reaching heights in careers they are fully qualified for begs a discussion of why women working in the financial world feel that a career without gender-related bumps is a luxury, not an expectation.
Of the six of Lebanon’s alpha banks surveyed by Executive, women made up an average of 45.5 percent of the workforce. Banque Libano-Francaise had the highest representation of women with 49.66 percent, while Byblos Bank had the lowest of the banks surveyed with 41.1 percent. Lebanon’s workforce is 24.8 percent female according to 2010 figures from the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Gender Gap Index, compared to 25.4 percent in Morocco and 46 percent in the United States. The World Bank puts the female percentage of Lebanon’s workforce slightly higher, at 27 percent.
Despite the difference in the estimations, both statistics indicate that Lebanon as a country is behind in terms of gender equity in the work place, though the banking sector, it would seem, is well ahead of the national trend.
A curious juxtaposition to the gender gap within the workforce is the gender dynamics of Lebanon’s universities. According to the WEF report, there are 1.19 times more women with tertiary education than men. Furthermore, 56 percent of students taking American University of Beirut’s Master of Business Administration program are female.
And that’s not the only oddity: when you scratch below the surface of the seemingly enlightened banking sector, it’s clear that women are largely crowded at the bottom and middle rungs of the ladder. In fact, the only female general manager of a conventional bank is Pik Yee Foong, of Standard Chartered, which isn’t a homegrown Lebanese institution. Furthermore, only two of the six banks surveyed by Executive have women on their boards.
Roles to play
The great debate surrounding the inequalities between men and women in the workplace is whether women choose to slow down their careers and delay promotion by taking maternity leave, or whether they are professionally punished for being biologically responsible for procreation. “Women are very educated in Lebanon but there is this Levantine mentality where they are very excited to be active and work after university, but upon their marriage there is a tendency to go back home to engage in a new challenge, which is building a family. It’s quite paradoxical with the level of education,” said Freddie Baz, chief financial officer at Bank Audi.
The legally mandated maternity leave in Lebanon is just seven weeks with 100 percent pay. This is significantly less than the 12 weeks given to Moroccan women and half of the minimum leave granted to American women.
Although there is little conclusive evidence as to the effect of maternity leave on the composition of workforces overall, there is conclusive evidence that taking maternity leave lowers a woman’s pay over her career, as concluded by a 2004 Ohio State University study. This also indicates that choosing to take maternity leave makes promotion less likely. But in Lebanon, there are two forces at work. Some women may choose to leave the workforce when they start families, but many are also drawn out of the country by better-paid opportunities elsewhere.
This is a man’s world
Regional players indicate that the boys club dominating the upper echelons of banking is not so much a consequence of cultural mores as the result of a testosterone-prone industry.
“The United States is considered the most open and most diverse society that we have; at least we try to promote it as such. But in the banking environment it still tends to be a very white, male, pinstripe suit, white collar type of environment,” said Nadine Chakkar, head of global financial institutions for The Bank of New York Mellon, also speaking at the NAWF conference. Chakkar has worked her entire career in the US, but is of Lebanese origin.
The case in Lebanon is similar, but with the added issue of the common habit of passing family businesses from father to son — which is largely no longer the case in the West. However, familial patronage aside, financial workplaces worldwide tend to display the same behavioral patterns. “Guys tend to help each other a lot more. When they move up they move everybody up with them,” said Chakkar. “With women, for some reason, we are wired differently. Instead of pulling everybody else with us we feel that we have to move up and push everybody else down. I think women just need to realize that somebody else’s success doesn’t hurt them.”
The World Bank reports that Lebanon is one of 42 countries in the world that does not afford men and women equal access to institutions in both the public and private sector. Married men and women do not enjoy equal financial rights. Women may work the same hours as men but are prohibited from certain industries and must retire four years earlier than men, at age 60. Finally, Lebanon is one of just four countries to grant tax breaks to men with unemployed wives, but not women with unemployed husbands.
Thus some hindrances may come from women themselves. However, Chakkar also said that reaching senior levels at financial institutions is a particular challenge for women due to the different ways that the two genders are perceived. “When I display a little bit of passion, I’m acting as a ‘bitch’ or being extremely aggressive, whereas a guy is just being competitive,” she said. However, Roula Habis, general manager at Middle East Capital Group, says that she uses the assumptions about women to her advantage as a private wealth manager. “Men usually know that women are more loyal and they are more focused,” she said. “You rarely hear about fraud and corruption among women — it’s more men. It’s easier for me to earn clients’ confidence because I am a woman.”
Chakkar said that she is feeling a change in the wind.
“I think the industry’s changing, and not because the guys at the top had a revelation. I think it’s changing because society is changing. I think they are realizing that good talent has no color, no gender. I think they are also succumbing to the pressure of the environment out there,” she said. “Today corporations are being put on the spot. You get asked ‘how many women do you have on your board? How many women do you have in senior management?’”