Caught between home and the office

Challenges and the way forward for Lebanese working moms

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A typical week-day in the life of a woman with a career and children looks something like this: She gets out of bed at 6 a.m. to get her children ready for their day, then goes to work for at least nine hours (often working through her lunch break) before picking up her children from daycare or their grandparents and being fully engaged with them and their needs until they sleep at 8 p.m. She then spends the remaining few hours before going to bed either catching up on small household chores or work, spending some quality time with her husband, or doing things that interest her—and the next day she gets up to repeat it all again.

Although working women share the economic responsibilities of the household with their partners—or as single working moms, or with a partner who is unable or unwilling to contribute, take on the responsibility alone—societal norms still dictate they are the main caregivers of their children and the ones in charge of household affairs. According to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report 2018, women tend to perform the majority of unpaid tasks—defined by the report as mainly housework and household care. In 29 of the 149 countries included in the report, women spend twice as much time on such activities than men. In Lebanon, a 2018 qualitative assessment conducted by the World Bank revealed that 70 percent of those surveyed said that the wife was responsible for domestic duties.

While the birth of a child is a joyous moment in a woman’s life, for women who work, it also comes with the worry of how to manage everything once their brief maternity leave ends.

Return on investment 

This dual role that women play once they become mothers has restricted their ability to build and sustain a career. Although more women are acquiring a university education than in previous decades—a 2013 report published by the Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action (CRTD.A) indicates that roughly 51 percent of university graduates in Lebanon are women—not all of them are utilizing this degree to get a job. The same report admits there is little national information on the participation of Lebanese women in the formal economy but says that various studies place it between 21 percent—which is the average for the Arab world—and 27 percent. Moreover, the report indicates that women are most likely to drop out of the labor force at childbearing years and beyond.

According to the World Bank survey, one of the major challenges for Lebanese women to enter and remain in the labor market is their home responsibilities, which include taking care of children and elderly relatives. The other challenge is societal pressure exhibited in the attitude of the community toward working mothers, and the mentality that a woman’s place is at home with her children. “We hear this time and again that there is pressure [on women] to be at home and take care of the children, and it is the man’s responsibility to be the breadwinner,” says Frida Khan, gender specialist at the International Labor Organization. “Definitely, there is pressure for this, and I’ve seen a lot of research, generally from the region, talking about cultural issues being a restraint in women’s participation in the workforce, especially after having children.”

Both these challenges are clearly at work among the women Executive talked to in this report. Some of the Syrian women working at Anamel, an NGO that works with Syrian refugees, told Executive that they are only working because they need to support their family and would stop doing so if they were financially secure; in their perspective, their main role is to be at home with their children. One of the Lebanese women Executive profiled, meanwhile, says her mother still criticizes her for not giving enough time to her children because of her work.

If taken from the perspective of the investment in education versus the outcome in productivity, then the economy suffers because there are not enough educated women in the workforce. “The economy needs women’s contributions, since half of the population and the majority of university grads are women,” says Nada Genadry, human resources director at Liban Post. “It would be a pity to have so much payment done on educating women for no return to the economy in comparison with the investment.”

Women on top

Childcare responsibilities are also one of the obstacles in the way of women reaching senior positions. The WEF’s Gender Gap reports that only 34 percent of global managers are women. Lebanon is one of five countries worldwide where the gender gap for managerial positions is at 90 percent.

While there are several factors at play for this, the responsibility of childcare being placed largely on women is a major factor. Speaking from her own research on the topic and from her experience as a working mother, Eveline Hitti, chairperson of the department of emergency medicine and deputy chief medical officer at American University of Beirut Medical Center (AUBMC), says that we need to change the way we look at childcare if we want women to grow in their careers. “After my experience, it became very clear: You can fix so much, but at the end of the day, if a woman is drowning between work at home and work at work, something has to give. This concept that we [women] are superheroes that can take 40 hours work weeks and put the same time at home is not going to work for anybody,” Hitti says. “I am not belittling the obstacles at work and glass ceilings and all that—there is still more that organizations do [in that regard]—but I think that even if you fix all this stuff but don’t change the way you look at childcare, and you don’t see it as a shared responsibility between the parents and not just the job of one person, namely the mother, I don’t think we will ever be able to close that gap.”

Genadry believes that it is the private sector and corporations that can jumpstart this mindset of childcare as a shared responsibility. “The theme of working women should be enlarged,” Genadry says. “It is time for us in Lebanon to think about educating men and women to share household chores, and I think we should rely on companies to do that. Even women need to be educated because they have difficulty delegating what they do, thinking that it is their responsibility, while in fact it is parenting.”

In January 2018, Lebanese labor law allowed for a three-day paternity leave, a move which the ILO’s Khan sees as positive—despite the absurdly short length of the leave—because it kick starts the conversation regarding the role of fathers in parenting.

The short leave

For the time being, parenting is still viewed as mainly the mother’s domain and so, if women are to be active contributors to the economy after childbirth, then they need support to do so. This support often starts with maternity leave which, in Lebanon, was extended to 70 days in April 2014. Khan says that while the extension is commendable, it still falls short of the 14-week leave that is recommended by the ILO convention. All of the companies Executive spoke to for this article agree that the maternity leave in Lebanon is too short. “I believe that maternity leave should be 90 days,” says Yara el-Ali, head of human resources at ABC. “Because if you take the normal evolution of babies, at three months old they would be more developed and could then be left at a nursery or with their parents.”

What Khan says is lacking from the Lebanese labor law, but found in the laws of neighboring countries, such as Jordan or Syria, is a woman’s right for an unpaid leave following her maternity leave—without the risk of losing her job. While this is not part of the law in Lebanon, some companies Executive spoke to say they do make exceptions if needed. “Maternity leave is 70 days, but if a mother wants to take more days, we give her the choice of unpaid leave,” Nayiri Manoukian, head of human resources at Bank Audi, says.

The big dilemma

One of the main thoughts on a woman’s mind while she is on her maternity leave is what to do in terms of childcare once she goes back to work. While in Lebanon reliance on family members, especially the child’s grandmother, for childcare is common—all the mothers Executive spoke to say this is what they did—this is not always an option. “The first problem she’ll face is who will take care of the child,” Khan says. “Before there used to be large extended families, and there was always a family member or another woman to take care of the child, but as we go more and more into nuclear families that’s not the case anymore.”

For mothers who do not have the luxury of having family help with childcare, options in Lebanon are limited. While Hana Jojou, president of the syndicate of nurseries and daycare owners in Lebanon, says daycares are allowed by law to enroll children at the age of 70 days, her own nursery, Dent De Lait, takes children in only when they can walk. “Very few daycares accept children at [70 days] because of the risks at that age—the average age they accept children is at four months,” she says. “Parents have to be very careful in selecting daycares for their newborns, and it is better to leave them with nurses in that case.”

Khan says Jordanian law mandates that if a company has 20 or more mothers with children, then it is the employer’s duty to provide an onsite childcare facility for them; in Lebanon this is still in discussion among private sector players. “Based on our work, we know that the conversation regarding onsite childcare facilities is increasing,” says Zeina Mhaidly, program manager at the Lebanese League for Women in Business (LLWB). “One of the main concerns voiced by companies regarding this is that it is a big responsibility, and they would need to train or hire staff for that. The extra cost was also a concern, and they said it would need a feasibility study.”

Ali says ABC has made an onsite daycare facility its second priority for 2020, as part of their internal corporate social responsibility goals. “The problem is that there is a high level of responsibility, and also we have three flagships which are geographically diversified, so it’s hard to find a good central location for one daycare,” says Ali. “We also have to do the financial study on how much it will impact us. But there is a huge benefit because daycares these days are very costly, and also it gives the mother peace of mind that her child is close by and in an environment she trusts.”

Some mothers who do not have the option of family childcare either hire a babysitter—though these are still in relatively short supply in Lebanon—or leave their child with their domestic worker.

A mother’s milk

When a woman returns to work after her maternity leave, she is often still lactating and therefore needs workplace provisions to pump her breast milk.

Khan says that Jordan’s labor law allows for two half-hour breastfeeding breaks for mothers who have returned to work after maternity leave but says she has seen nothing similar in the Lebanese labor law. LLWB’s Mhaidly says they worked with three pilot companies—LibanPost, Fattal, and Teknika—to assess their policies when it comes to gender equality and found that having provisions for breast pumping is very much up to each company’s policies and initiative.

Genadry says Libanpost allows lactating mothers to leave work an hour early so they can breast pump, as a mother’s milk is important for a baby’s development. Bank Audi has designated a breast pumping room in its headquarters. “Since a lot of mothers return from their maternity leave still needing to pump, instead of them using the bathrooms, we have created a lactating room in a private space, which is well equipped and clean for breastfeeding mothers,” Manoukian says.

The power of flexibility

Women need flexibility in their work environment to manage raising a child at the same time as pursuing their career. “Usually, the difficulty women face is in the time where they have small children and are stretched. Basically what they need most in that period is flexibility in time,” Genadry says.

The representatives of all the companies Executive spoke to say they have introduced a “flex-hour,” meaning employees can come to and leave work an hour early. This is mainly used to escape traffic, but it can also be used by parents to maximize time spent with their children. Samar Diab, head of human resources at the American University of Beirut (AUB), says that they have recently coordinated with the workers and staff syndicate at AUB to implement an alternative to the 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. working schedule. In certain cases employees are allowed to come to work at 7:30 a.m. and leave at 4:30 p.m. “Employees from several departments have asked for this as it helps them with commute, as well as those who have children and want to get back in time to help them with homework,” she says.

Liban Post recently introduced part-time work, but Genadry admits that the response has not been very favorable because it can come with reduced pay and benefits. Those who do use it are usually students.

Work from home, or a condensed work week are still not viable options in Lebanon. “You need to have the right culture and have employees who are responsible enough to be granted this privilege. We are not yet there,” Genadry says.

A woman who feels comfortable and trusted within her work environment will produce more. “If you give this motivational flexibility it will definitely increase the engagement for working moms and show her that we appreciate her role as a mother, which is as important as her job,” Ali says. “I can tell you from my team, when I am flexible with them they feel motivated to give me more.”

While it may still be a while before Lebanese women achieve the perfect balance between their role as a parent and their career, the conversation is underway, and there are signs that shifts in societal attitudes and steps taken by employers are heading in the right direction.

Nabila Rahhal

Nabila is Executive's hospitality, tourism and retail editor. She also covers other topics she's interested in such as education and mental health. Prior to joining Executive, she worked as a teacher for eight years in Beirut. Nabila holds a Masters in Educational Psychology from the American University of Beirut. Send mail