For the last several decades, women have increased their participation in business, the economy and politics. But this revolution remains incomplete, not only in the Arab world as many might think, but also in Europe and the United States. For instance, while women are highly active participants in US and European businesses and political life, their representation in the parliaments remains relatively low. Furthermore, gender discrimination remains an issue when it comes to decision-making executive positions in the workplace.
According to existing statistics and data conducted by several organizations and analyzed by the Lebanese League for Women in Business (LLWB), most working women in Lebanon have attained high degrees of education from universities (29.1%) or high schools (26.8%), compared to 13.7% of working males with a university degree and a further 5.7% with a high school degree. In terms of economic activity, the labor force participation of Lebanese women is estimated at only 21.7% of the total labor force and thus remains very low. Furthermore, while the number of women qualified for top management positions continues to increase, they still do not have equal opportunities when it comes to senior positions. According to ESCWA statistics from 2002, women employers are only 1.5% of the female workforce, while some other statistics cited in the National Report about the Situation of Women in Lebanon for the Year 2000 demonstrate women’s limited participation in decision-making at different levels.
In Lebanon, civil laws do not prohibit women from practicing most jobs, but widespread stereotypical notions about women and men determine “appropriate” specializations and professions for women.
In most technical and production fields, women are denied social security benefits and have also been discriminated when it comes to health care, hospitalization and other social benefits for family members. Moreover, Lebanese labor law prohibits mechanical and manual industries from hiring women at all.
In terms of rural employment, the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women released a report noting that, “women agricultural workers are excluded from Lebanese laws and that no development grants have been allocated to rural areas to improve women’s opportunities.” It also observes that women’s contribution to agriculture (11.8%) has been shrinking due to competition, stagnation, decline in incomes, weak incentives and narrow frameworks of participation.
As for political participation, Lebanese women have gained the right to vote, hold public office, elect and be elected in municipal councils. However, the pervasive chauvinistic mentality in the country hinders their efforts at leadership. At the international level, regulations stipulate that female candidates for third category foreign-service posts must be unmarried and forbids wives of foreign-service employees to work. Women have the right to participate in diplomatic delegations, but representation is actually given to men, even if a conference theme concerns women.
What explains this phenomenon and what are the barriers to the full and effective participation of Lebanese women in the local economy and in the decision-making and planning spheres? Can we think of women as the unexploited workforce and leaders’ capital for the future of the country?
In the early 1970s, working women were mainly found in limited sectors such as education, nursing, trading, handicrafts and agriculture. Between then and the 1990s, the country witnessed a small yet noticeable movement of women to new and less traditional sectors, mainly due to a new trend in the female enrollment rate into new choice of specializations in post-secondary and university education. The number of women who graduated and started working in liberal professions such as lawyers, judges, engineers, doctors, physicians, bank managers, university teachers — just to name a few — increased considerably during this period.
On another hand, the heavy migration of males to Arab countries (1970s-80s), then to Europe and North America (1980s-90s), followed by the worsening economic living conditions after the war (1990s) and finally the latest political turmoil and the aftermaths of the recent war, necessitated that women participate more proactively in various economic sectors and even in the less traditional ones.
We at LLWB believe that women are a vital element in the Lebanese society’s development and prosperity. A woman should have the opportunity to achieve her full civic, social and professional rights and potential through equal opportunities, unrestricted access to resources, entrepreneurship and leadership.
Nada Tarraf is founding member and treasurer of the LLWB