Home Economics & Policy Keeping tabs on gender equality

Keeping tabs on gender equality

by Thomas Schellen

Towards better inclusion of women across economic sectors

The quest for women’s inclusion in the Arab workplace has taken another step on the long journey to improving the role of women in the formal economy. The Center for Inclusive Business and Leadership (CIBL) at the end of March 2021 launched the first iteration of findings from its KIP Index (KIP originally was an abbreviation for Knowledge is Power, a two-year project on gender and sexuality that was launched in the 2010s at the American University of Beirut). The KIP Index website describes the new gauge as a “sector-based measure of women-inclusive policies and practices in local organizations” in countries of the Middle East and North Africa region. Executive had a virtual sit-down with Charlotte Karam, PhD, the founding director of CIBL.

What are the milestones and target dates that you want to achieve with the index?

Moving forward, our intention is to collect data every two years and expand the sample. We are hoping to track how things progress or digress. There is no point in collecting data except to do it over time so that you can be a companion with employers {encouraging them] to do better and hold themselves accountable. Given the changes in funding priorities, we are also trying to seek an endowment to support this work. So far, we have funding for the next iteration, which will start in 2022.

I think you obtained a fair amount of funding in 2019? This funding is committed and secure, right?

Yes. The first funding for the first iteration was a grant from the [United States’] Middle East Partnership Initiative for $1.5 million. For the second iteration it was a little bit less, but now we worked out the kinks and so it will be much easier to run.

Almost every newly launched index these days gives one the sense that there is an ideological framework behind it. Assuming that this is no different for the KIP Index, what is it that you intend to prove and what are your fail-safes so that you do not get false positive or false negative outcomes in line with whatever ideological expectation you might have?

Our intention in creating this index is very much ideologically based. I don’t want to sound too academic but I will say that our intention was [departing] from a post-colonial space. What I mean by that is that we want to gain control of our narrative from within the region so that we are able to compare and contrast between local realities […] without being forced to compare ourselves only to standards that are outside the region. Ideologically it really is about creating an indigenous Arab conversation that will move forward together in bringing ourselves to each other.

To the question about false positives, we had no expectation. We did not come in here with a hypothesis. When we developed the index we brought together people that worked in the area of economic empowerment in 11 countries. They are people working on the ground, they are largely [civil society organizations] or academic institutions that have been studying this area and [participating in] trainings. We brought them together and what is fundamental to our method and ideology is the idea of participation. One of the questions that we wanted to ask was who is [the index] benefiting, how does it benefit the local conversation, as opposed to a transnational conversation looking at us from afar. It is academically post-colonial and what we call feminist participatory action research. What guided us in terms of value was how to improve the lives of women who are working in today’s organizations and how to translate that into more inclusive and dignified HR systems.

What timeline or vision do you have about modifying deeply rooted behaviors of superiority in economic organizations that are usually associated with male attitudes?

For us it is not a question of male versus female. It is more about oppressive structures and about vulnerability. In our case, what we are trying to address with CIBL are the neoliberal structures of economics. Our CIBL story and journey started a long time ago but began officially a few years ago. It is a conversation with structure, a conversation with decision makers. We have hit something that is resonating with decision makers in Libya, in Lebanon, in Iraq – in these conflict areas, which is to say that we have to have a conversation about these oppressive structures and how to build more inclusive systems. This is going to help the community and there is also a business case. It will enable them to do business better. Thus when we were creating our training modules, we embedded the fundamental notions of social justice, although we are speaking to business audiences that do not often place social justice as their motivating or animating factor.

It is shocking to us how much this is resonating with [business leaders today], much better than it used to. This may be because, take Lebanese employers for example, they now, more than ever, realize [the problem of oppressive structures] and are fearing to be stuck in a system that is taking away their money. The banking system is collapsing, the State is collapsing, right? So it can now resonate when you start talking about vulnerability and oppressive structures.

To give one example [for the increased receptiveness of business leaders to our programs], based on the results of the KIP index, we, in partnership with Executive Education at OSB, have designed a mini-certification for executives in business across the eight countries [covered in the index] and put out a call [inviting them] to attend free four [training] modules in March of 2021 free of charge to receive this certification. In response to our call, we got 1,700 applicants of whom we chose 482. And these are c-suite or upper level managers, decision makers. They attended all of the program with this curriculum of seeing it from the other side and then going further [to discussing] what strategies you can actually implement in your workplace. It was very successful.

 During what time did you receive the 1,700 applications that you mentioned, and can this number be compared to a previous period when people applied for a similar program?

It was the first time that we did [this program] and designed something at CIBL that would be provided for free. We launched the advertising at the end of January; we filtered through them and did our selection in February and then the classes started. I have been doing executive education for 12 years and when we offer something for free, people will come. But [this was a program] that specifically focused on inclusive systems and [human resources], and on MENA. We do not talk about how you [address HR structures] in the United States and at multinationals. We talk about how you do it when you have no electricity and when there are protests outside [in your street].

As far as interest in this topic of HR structures and talking to decision makers, did you make particular observations as to breakdown per country?

We built the index [as] sector based, not country based. In terms of country groupings we use the World Bank classifications, thus we looked at resource rich and labor importing [countries as one group] and secondly at small and medium enterprises. We created two indices, so that we can capture women’s voices that are often ignored, and [this sub-index] speaks to, or mirrors the structural index that speaks to decision makers.

Changes in political empowerment sometimes seem to be very quick, being as they are based on the number of women elected to Parliaments and political office. Relative to that, the rate of change in economic positions and CEO level or senior professional empowerment seems to be much slower. Is the rate of change on the political level more of a quick burn and how deep and sustainable is the rate of change on the corporate level?

I feel that at least in the Arab region the rate of change in political representation of women comes with so many feudal and tribal ties so that a woman may be empowered one minute and the next will be gone. In the business sector, it is more sustainable, because once she is promoted up, she is there. The way of getting into those positions is very different and much less political or tribal. So I think they can’t really be compared in terms of the dynamics.

Another thing that I want to say is that in a lot of the [region’s] rich countries, there is state feminism, so [you see] these increases in international indices which are measuring who is working for internal security forces or who is working in the airport, or a public university administration. What we are measuring is the private sector, what businesses are doing, not what the government is doing. And this is a lot less regulated and not talked about.

Might there even be a question if state-owned or state-influenced enterprises differ from or influence genuine private sector employment behavior and how much hidden state feminism might be involved in the behavior of private employers? Might there be a blindspot on how much  private sector appreciation of women in their workforce is induced by state influence and how much it is appreciation in its own right?

This is an excellent point. You just gave me a topic for a new paper. This is a new angle that we should be asking about right now, about state intervention or state influence being infused into the private sector. Love it.

On the same day when you launched the KIP index on March 31, the World Economic Forum released their 2021 Global Gender Gap (GGG) Index. What do you think of the numbers that were presented there from the background of your expertise?

We did a comparative review of all the indicators that come out, actually there are 12 other transnational indices that are similar to the GGG Index. We see this as a nice backdrop to the work that we are trying to do but our whole motivation for doing this is in speaking back to these indices. How so? First of all, statistically speaking the weighting and the aggregating and the questions being asked – we are weighting them within the region and not weighting them based on an assumption that the global north is the benchmark. All the weighting statistically happens within the region. This is very important.

The second thing is that the vast majority of these indices collect and use the same data. They use national level data that is often collected by the government or in national level surveys. We are not doing this. We are asking HR managers within the organizations to report what [their organizations are] doing. This is a completely different data set. Our intention is to equip businesses to do differently within the business.

While there is no way in which one could disagree that gender advancement in the Middle East and North Africa is not top of the world, how relevant is it to compare an achievement within the Middle East to an achievement in the global north when even the achievements in those countries appear very fragile, as shown by this year’s GGG results suggesting that within just one year the distance to reaching parity jumped from about 100 years to over 136 years? Doesn’t one have to wonder about the resilience of the methodology used by an index such as GGG and the indicative value of numbers if considering how much they have changed in a single year?

I agree and often question the robustness and how it can switch from [ a gap of] 100 years to 137 years and so on. But my question is different. For me [the question comes from the fact] that on the past ten iterations of GGG or all the other [indices on gender issues], the Middle East has been ranked the lowest region in the world. We know that. Even if [a Middle Eastern country is shown in place] 130, or 140 or 170, wherever it is in the rankings, it has been that way for the past ten years. So what has the index done for us other than tell us that we are doing a shitty job?

What we need now is to measure something that is going to allow us to change things in a practical way, on the ground. This is the point of the [KIP] index. It measures specific practices to be able to change those practices, track them and learn from different practices that are happening at organizations. We know we are doing bad, but now what? These national-level indicators are not telling us [about the] now what. It is extremely important to [capture the voices of the people in an organization] and take that forward and create Hr and employer solutions for inclusion. The voices of women [in the organizations] matter in terms of HR structures and that is what we are trying to do.

But what if the senior decision maker in a company has no idea what the women in the company contribute to the overall performance and results?

Hence the need to track HR systems and what women are doing, how they achieve, what is happening within organizations in terms of recruitment, retention and promotion? This is the point of gender dis-aggregated data both in qualitative through their story telling narrative as well as structural through HR reporting on policies and processes

Can we expect a series of publications and papers out of CIBL that tell us about KIP Index findings over the coming five years or will you communicate this only in the form of twitter blurbs or slogans that circulate on social media?

Because we are academics, we are already in the process of writing academic pieces and we have a moral obligation and social justice obligation to turn into [action]. So we start with white papers that are already on our website and these have specific recommendations and then we are turning them into curricula and executive trainings which have already started. We are now working on academic publications and then intend to do video training, like animated videos. These are kind of key results, all targeted at decision makers.

The KIP index results and the methodology that we use in the KIP Index then is applied for funding of the SAWI project to Support and Accelerate Women’s Inclusion. [SAWI] is a five-year project, $6 million, to work with 80 employers in eight countries and partner with them on implementing some of the changes that were suggested through the KIP index. We are in the process of that and are just completing year one of this five year project.

Is Lebanon among the eight countries, and how many Lebanese employers are with you?

We have 10 Lebanese employers, 10 from each country, so 80 in total.

Did you have a lot of demand and interest from Lebanese employers to participate in the SAWI project?

Surprisingly, we did. We were not expecting it. For the Executive Education Training, we had a list of I think 300+ who wanted to attend the SAWI mini-certification program.

How many enterprise candidates did you have that you could select your 10 partner companies from?

We had a list of I think 300. [We] did not allow for applications. We had a list of people that were engaged with CIBL through our trainings and our webinars and from that community of CIBL. We tried very hard to have cross-sectional representation [in terms of company locations and sizes] so we selected the 10 together with our country partner, which is the Lebanese League for Women in Business [LLWB].

Did you do anything together with LLWB angel investor fund?

No. Up to this point we have shied away from working in the field of women-led entrepreneurship because we do not believe that it inherently means that you are doing inclusive systems just because you are a woman-led business. You could be the most oppressive and patriarchal [person]. But we are starting to look into investment, with a gender-lens investing project. That is part of the SAWI project.

Would you agree that a person having more or less of a social conscience is not determined by their sex but by whatever other factors?

Exactly. It is discriminating [to think that social conscience has something to do with gender]. It is not true. From our research, this is not the case. Because you are born a woman does not mean that you are more against oppression, or more inclusive.

One thing that we have seen from the pandemic experience, to quote once more the GGG, “the hardest hit sectors by lockdowns and rapid digitization are those where women are employed”. Would you say that this general finding applies also to the Middle East region, that the highest hit sectors by the corona recession were those with high female employment?

We didn’t collect data on that. But just in terms of my understanding of the region, one of the hardest hit sectors has been healthcare where women are frontliners. I would agree there. Also on banking, which is a feminized industry across the region at least at the lower levels, I would agree that it was hit hard because of the economic collapse in Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. The sanctions. But generally speaking, women have been hit the hardest across the board. One thing that people are not talking about but should be talking about is the increased burden of care work because children are at home […]. But [what creates new questions] is the whole idea of the dissolution of the work-life balance, the division between work and life which is now gone, and the idea that your office is now your home: what does that mean for new contracts from the employer perspective? What does it mean for employer responsibilities toward their employees who are now working from home, in terms of gender based violence and domestic abuse? How do we re-define this new era of engagement and paid labor?

The short-term repercussions of the pandemic shock on women have been noted and are very bad. This is of course highly speculative, but could the long-term outlook for women in the Arab world,, given their resilience and the ability of women in the MENA region to digest shocks perhaps better than their male counterparts, improve due to the pandemic shock? Would that be a remote possibility?

The way I would say it is that the history of survival under oppression, or the history of resilience and the skills of navigating that oppression, is equipping certain demographics, like women, to do better in this new era. It is an excellent question. Time will tell.

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Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years. Send mail

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