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Valuing Pandora

Unboxing the economic potential of gender equity

by Thomas Schellen

When looking through history, the most equitable balance of male and female powers is found in pantheons, antiquity’s cultural projections of superpowers onto goddesses and gods. Take Concordia and Justitia, Hera and Aphrodite. Romans and Greeks had powerful women in their pantheons, deities personifying justice, agreement, motherly care, and beauty. Even better, some important versions of the flexible Roman and Greek divinity circles were almost perfectly gender-balanced, entailing top six gods and top six goddesses. My own favorite always was Pallas Athena, whom I like to liberally describe as the Greek city-goddess of brains, brawn, and domestic industry. 

And then comes the shocking turn: enter Pandora. It seems that the first created woman always gets a disastrous reputation. Pandora and the box. Eve and the apple. But honestly, can one deny that these archetypes of women were set up in those narratives (by all means, guess by whom) to look like the root of every trouble and pain, while they really were personifications of adorable traits? Consider the name: Pandora combines the ancient Greek words “all” and “gift.” It can be read as all-giving or all-gifted – either way a highly positive connotation. 

Anyway, the problem of restoring gender equity in the real, financialized, or impending virtual world economy is not about solving the question of how mythologies at the base of Western civilization could have lost their way and turned from lauding female deities to denouncing fallen women, or even how women have been exploited and objectified as male property throughout decidedly non-mythological millennia. 

The problem of the economy, and specifically that of the Lebanese one today, is that this society will likely deteriorate even further into a state of failure in every respect, unless there are gigantic turnabouts, most, if not all of which, will require women to assume much greater roles in politics and economy.

But before this increased role of women will become workplace reality, many things have yet to happen. One such thing, according to international research, is the needed reversal in the deterioration of women’s incomes and economic benefits. This deIn collaboration with destructive deterioration has been linked to the pandemic of the past two years. Since the declaration of the pandemic, commercial studies and humanitarian evaluations have called global attention to disproportionate downturns in women’s employment, career options, and mental health, including increased burnout rates among women in senior management positions.

Women in emerging economies were affected, especially hard, during the coronavirus recession and were forced to cope with a combination of lower incomes, increased work pressures along with increasing childcare and domestic pressures, among which an upsurge in domestic violence has been most revolting. In terms of global economic outcomes, a study by consultancy McKinsey in mid-2020, even modeled worst and best-case scenarios that theorized a $14 trillion global GDP gap by the year 2030 between doing nothing and doing everything for the improvement of gender parity in a post-Covid global economy.

 While it is known only too well that Lebanon suffered one of the worst rates of GDP deterioration in the world during the pandemic recession’s first year, and another severe deterioration – estimated by the World Bank as a 10.5 GDP percent contraction – in 2021 due to multiple reasons, it is not quite a simple undertaking to assess the compounded impact of the Lebanese crisis on women. 

Lama Moussawi, the director of the Center of Inclusive Business Leadership (CIBL), emphasizes that the participation of women in the Middle East and North Africa region’s economy is below 20 percent, falling far short of the global average of 40 percent. However, she also says that local research efforts on the situation of Lebanese women in the past two years – such as inquiries on the numbers and ratios of female and male job losses and company policies for the safeguarding of jobs by gender – have yet to yield results. According to Moussawi, such research has been initiated, but publication of findings is not to be expected for a few more months. 

Anecdotal evidence from everyday encounters and from the opinions of people with whom Executive spoke with during research for this gender equity report indicated that women were not suffering greater job losses than men in an economy where everyone was fighting for survival. Simple observations at places such as banks as well as survey findings and impressions of persons in the financial industry and the tech sector suggested that men, especially mid-career individuals holding degrees and work experience, have been more likely than female professionals to seek employment opportunities outside of Lebanon due to the crisis in living conditions, and the destruction of domestic career options. 

According to this journalist’s conversations, the relative female and male majority view – which is in line with descriptions of common challenges for career-seeking women in other developed or developing workplace cultures – is that employed Lebanese women are more likely than their male counterparts to feel the need to prove themselves, more likely to stay with their jobs, and more willing to shoulder combined work and home pressures; but instead of vigorously negotiating better remunerations for themselves, they get short shrift on compensation. 

Women keep going

Notably, women that Executive asked about the roles of women in the national economy and female approaches to their economic lives expressed a wide spectrum of views that included what the interlocutors called natural traits and strengths of women. Saying that they have not noticed large differences in employers’ behavior vis-a-vis female employees as far as terminations during the crisis, the female researchers and advocates of gender equality pointed out, however, that many Lebanese employers appeared to take advantage of female employees by burdening them with extra work but failed in offering compensations that would be commensurate with the workloads that they shouldered after coworkers had departed or been laid off. 

Whereas perceptions and self-perceptions of women in the context of the country’s prevalent culture might constitute a mix between gender-transcending assurances of their economic rights and competencies and biological views that could have been held by their forebears. The consensus view of female experts and advocates was that women work harder than ever, adapt to the new challenges of the crisis, and are keeping the country afloat. 

Industrialist Cynthia Haddad Abi Khater, and her colleague Iman Kharrat, at engineering and robotics specialist manufacturer Technica tell it this way: “As women, Iman and I can tell you that women worked perhaps three times [harder] during the Covid situation, whether on a personal or performance levels.” Olfat Khattar, regional manager of the Support and Accelerate Women’s Inclusion (SAWI) project at CIBL, asked if women will help save Lebanon’s economy, she says with conviction, and worthy of several exclamation marks: “Will Lebanese women save the economy of this country? Lebanese women will save this country.”

A truth that needs attention

The obvious, but too rarely acknowledged truth, role of women in Lebanon’s economy, a truth that deserves immense attention in the current situation, is that the paradigm of economic growth is, and always has been, unachievable without women’s contributions. In the industrial age, around the start of the 20th century, many of today’s world leading corporations could without female work contributions never have grown as they did. From the formation of the first secretarial pools and the labor of women in wartime economies of the world war era to the rise of the consumer economy, the information and knowledge economy, the parallels between economic growth and women’s economic liberation cannot but convince of this interdependence between female work and economic growth. 

Thus, the issues of female participation and need for inclusion and greater economic justice for women, the problem of the crisis’ inordinate pressures on resources and productivity in general and the entrenched disadvantaging of women in the workplace, in particular, converge into questions, not of if, but when and how much improving inclusion and diversity and solving problems of gender equality will help in creating a better and sustainable Lebanese economy. 

The all-important goal of sustainable economic growth in what aspires to be a Lebanese variant of a transitional economy – a bit of an oxymoron because economies are always in transition from something to something other and hopefully better – necessitates moving from the previous economy’s part fiefdom, part anarchic paradigms to sustainability and inclusiveness. It cannot be achieved without addressing gender gaps in pay and opportunity. 

One big deception in past economic growth and attempts of building the wealth of societies was not recognizing or concealing that economic growth and liberty of economies is fundamentally tied to the participation and liberation of women. In terms of the philosophy of money, the link between women’s independence and emergence from feudal and familial barriers has first been traced over a century ago by German economic sociologist Georg Simmel. It was not until growing industrialization that money incrementally entered the hands of most women, with liberating effects. 

The rise of money as a tool but also a problem of industrial and post-industrial identity is thus intertwined with the economic activities of women – consequently, one can surmise that the economic contribution of women to a nation’s wealth and GDP should be captured in much larger equity building under both, concepts of economic justice, and market logic. 

Equity in economics stands for the value that is left when a venture is resolved. Adding equity or building equity in the context of the listed corporation is the process of issuing shares that increase a company’s residual value for shareholders after settlement of all liabilities. This very successful process of profit maximization and financialization of the economy has, however, not adequately included the contributions of key stakeholders, namely the male and female employees in the companies. 

Gender equity has, in a general way, been understood as a target in improving imbalanced social systems. In an economic sense, one could seek to improve gender equity by understanding and accounting for human capital investments that increase the value of the enterprise and constitute moral and legal assets. These assets are attributable to the women and men who invest their talents and skills in diverse and inclusive ways into an enterprise, thus enhancing its societal and economic value beyond that of a company that is only driven by a financial profit motive. 

This approach, one can presume, will work well in the rising tradition of economic thought that highlights the extraordinary capacity of purposeful companies to create value. For this valorization (in a new human capital sense) to manifest, employees need “to align their performance with the broader goals of the corporation” (economist, impact investment guru and former central banker Mark Carney), which is easiest in companies that offer fair compensation, job advancement opportunities, adequate resources, and a fair working environment. The latter, Carney points out, “will look different for every company and position, but the basics will not; all employees should be treated with dignity and respect and be free from intimidation and harassment.”

 In summary, fair treatment and work connected to meaningful purpose, create equity, regardless of gender, age, or any other self-chosen or seen as fated identity factor. Freedom from harassment, equality of opportunity, and chances of advancement are further building blocks of equity in a purposeful company, and in a 21st century workplace inseparable from diversity, inclusiveness, and gender equality. 

In the midst of all the shifts and rethinking of economic and human capital basics built over recent years, where gig and circular economy patterns have started moving the workplace away from the firm as monolithic concept towards a collaborative platform, more fluidity has been introduced into the concept of the office and workplace through the corona pandemic experience, together with technological innovations in computing, automation, and communication. The Lebanese work sphere by virtue of the crisis comes to terms with the equality and diversity paradigms that play a crucial role for maximizing economic productivity.

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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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