Home Economics & Policy Cultivating capacity through greater solidarity

Cultivating capacity through greater solidarity

Q&A with Yusr Sabra, president of the Lebanese League of Women in Business

by Thomas Schellen

The Lebanese League of Women in Business (LLWB) carries the mantle of empowering women on all levels of the economy. Executive inquired about LLWB’s perspective on the situation of female employees and all economically active women in Lebanon with LLWB President Yusr Sabra. 

How did LLWB as organization experience the crisis and how do you see the situation of women in the business realm at the end of this turbulent year? 

As you know, Lebanon has never been very stable. With all the ups and downs, the crisis for us really started in October 2019. So many things were shut down. Around that same time, LLWB decided to shift gears and focus more on understanding what the community’s direct needs are. We created different task forces, for example one task force covering SME businesses, one focusing on mental health, [and] one focusing on medicine. We had four or five task forces that would see many women get together, brainstorm initiatives and [then] take the lead on these initiatives. 

So we basically approach crises at LLWB by going close to the members and the community and developing the solutions that they help us come up with and then we support them in [carrying them out]. For example after the Beirut Blast, the first thing we did was to get in touch with everyone and survey them to check who is here, who isn’t, who was injured, who had losses to their homes and offices. Out of this survey we collected information about the needs of members, did fundraising based on this, and then distributed the funds directly to the members. 

This is the operational side of how you dealt with the crisis as LLWB. With regard to mitigating the crisis impacts on women, is it correct that you have members on the levels of business ownership, managers, and professionals or employees? 

Yes. We have all types of women in our community. We have employees, we have board members, employees in management positions, business owners, freelancers, etc. What we are now doing is looking at the different types of members. For the prevailing time we are focusing a lot on business owners who are women and supporting them through funds and training programs. We also focus on women in rural areas that don’t have the same kind of access that we have and we collaborate with partners in programs for upskilling. We have [recently] decided that we will also be focusing on the freelancers and consultants. This was based on feedback from the members. We have for sure noticed that there is a lot of stress on women during crises. Women are the ones on the frontline. You find them the most emotionally tired and stressed. Thus the trend that we see is that for the mental and emotional support that they need, many women look [towards] the work that they are doing.

If one takes the role of women from the top of the labor market, would you agree that the role of women on boards has been researched quite extensively and discussed in regional context but it is perhaps not so much of an issue in Lebanon now as there are no capital markets? By comparison, how do you assess the roles of women in management and the whole issue of female employees when seen from the question if Lebanese companies have specific strategies for female employees and their job security or if employers tend to put the burden of the crisis onto women? 

First I would like to answer about the women on board issues. A law proposal on this was not adopted and we are now writing our own draft, based on laws in EU countries, to encourage women on boards. We have drafted this law and work with companies on how to incorporate women on boards. When women are in leadership positions this trickles down, hopefully, to create different policies that are applied within companies. [As to the question of policies for female employees], I think that you will find two types of companies here: [the first type] are the ones that have awareness of this. Perhaps they are not applying everything today but they have the awareness and are working towards it. And then you have a lot of companies that need a lot of additional awareness and open mindedness, etc. The crisis is transitional and it becomes unfortunately a secondary priority [of companies] to be thinking of [women in the workforce] while thinking about the bottom line and how to sustain the business. And yes, by nature, women tend to carry the burden and say “give me the responsibility, I can handle it, I can do it. I have seen this.” A lot of companies, when they let go of employees, they keep the most hard working and would let go of two or three [before they] say we are hiring someone new. You see this in many places that companies let go of many people because they can’t afford them anymore and [rely on] a few remaining people without [them] being properly compensated for the [extra] work. 

Is there a tendency for struggling Lebanese companies to first let go of women and then of men?

I don’t think so. I don’t have data on this but I have seen several cases where the ones that are left but carry loads that [they are] not being compensated for, tend to be women.

Would you agree that the distribution of work burdens in Lebanon is still disadvantaging women? 

Many studies show this. They show that they are paid less, promoted less, and even when they are promoted, the increase in the salary is not the same. These are like givens here. 

LLWB seems to have come a long way, despite barriers that exist in Lebanon and are far too strong even in Europe, by all data indications on the roles of women in management and the gender gap in pay and similar things. In what year did you start as organization? 

The organization started officially in 2006 but it was revived around 2014 when Mrs. [Asmahan] Zein took over. She revitalized everything, built a new board, changed the bylaws of the organization, and they started to build many partnerships with international NGOs. I personally joined LLWB as a member in 2016. Asma is a person who pushes the women members, especially of the younger generation, to be active. She does this in a very smart way. She puts them in the spotlight and she invited me in 2019 to join the board, and I got elected as board member [and later became the default candidate for being the president]. 

From this experience, how would you compare leadership succession and board election at LLWB with those of older organizations that are perhaps more established but also have been politicized, shaped by long-standing communal interests and typically male heritage in leadership positions, organizations in areas such as finance and enterprises but also including specialized areas such as publishing and media where organizational leadership positions tended to be rotated among small circles of male office holders?

Under the bylaws of LLWB, the same board cannot [extend] their term beyond the period of office and the president cannot be president for more than two terms. That in itself is revolutionary. To think that someone is willing to step down and hand over [the leadership] to allow the sustainability of the organization. We have a lot of awareness of [risks of rotational leadership in a small circle] and you will discover that this board has two people who were present on previous boards or were advisors to the board. We asked Mrs. Asma Zein to stay on with the official title of advisor to the board, to make sure that we are continuing the work. We cannot switch strategies every two years with a new board, so we have a main strategy that we are abiding by and we check in with the advisors or board members that were here from previous terms. So we are introducing new initiatives and new ideas, but we also remain true to our identity. I think this is unique about LLWB. 

Are you talking about an institutional DNA here that is different from that of “masculine type” business groups and industrial entities where political and communal alignments and positional thinking all too often appear to be dominant in the institutional DNA? 

You know we have one male on the board but the board is in majority women. I cannot support this with any studies but I do find that women are able to let go of their egos, much more than men do. There is a level of communication and conflict resolution that I see as stronger when [the organization] is [composed of] women. You obviously have conflicts when you have different backgrounds and different ideas, but the way that conflicts get resolved, this is special when [you deal with] women.

So can you confirm from your personal experience that the organization remains on a growth trajectory in continuation of a development whereby LLWB, although before 2014 not a very strong force in the development of business in Lebanon, gained many new members in 2016 and 2017?

Yes. [LLWB] started to be active when Asma Zein came on board, with no political background, [and] no other interest [than] to support women in business. This is what she did. The networking that she has built is very organic and natural. It has become a very large network. We currently have 460 members. We do not see each other always but there is a kind of support system that exists. This is the spirit of it. 

And the networking has become institutionalized on the level of LLWB? 

Yes, you see a lot of members who pursue the same kind of activities. I learned that I could get several opportunities because of this kind of support [as given by Mrs. Zein] and I am doing the same for members within my circle.

How large do you see your addressable market in terms of women-led enterprises and SME businesses in Lebanon? 

We have a lot of outreach. We have offices in the North and the Bekaa region and we might [open] one in the south. We are interested in covering all of Lebanon, not just to be centralized in Beirut, and I think we can grow the community even further than what we have reached. But again, the focus is not just on the growth of it but to make sure that we remain providing quality support to this network. More than just in numbers.

Do you have any numbers in terms of how many commercial establishments are women-led?

I am sure you know that these numbers are not easy [to come by] and depend on which statistics you are looking at but I can tell you that there is actually a very large parallel economy that exists in the form of unregistered businesses. I don’t have statistics on it but I know from LLWB and from my work in logistics that it is very substantial. We work with a lot of unregistered businesses and a majority are women-led. I am now personally working to create this kind of database from the different sources that I have access to, through the company and through LLWB. 

Would you agree that the intensity of work involvement of women in Lebanon is not adequately captured in international reports by the International Labor Organization and the likes of such global entities? 

I think that [Lebanese women] are much more active than represented in the numbers, yes. 

Do you have an annual goal for increasing your membership by a certain ratio?

It is not a [key performance indicator] KPI. We look more at how many beneficiaries we are supporting and we have direct targets to make sure that we can sustain the NGO in terms of number of projects and in the funding that we are able to secure, and then the number of beneficiaries that we are able to support. 

What is your personal vision for the role of LLWB, let’s say, seven years from now? 

First I would say governance. [My vision is to do] more work on the governance aspect. And I know this is a long shot, but [I dream of] pushing more women into the public sector. Because we need women there also. For the growth of the members, having all types of programs that we talked about previously, [we are] focusing on the different kind of women backgrounds that we have among our members. That’s about it right now. One thing on the institutional level that we did and that I would like to see grow further is to clean up our house internally. When Asma [assumed office] she was responsible for fixing up the bylaws, structuring the board, etc. As the [current] board, we are focusing on developing the operational side. We now have an operational team with an executive director that runs the day-to-day activity, where previously we needed to depend on the free time of the board members. This is another type of succession planning, if you want. 

Are you pursuing expansion on the level of networking with organizations both inside and outside of Lebanon?

Yes. Anything that LLWB does is always in partnership. Personally this is something I have to learn, how to reach out to the different organizations that are out there, [such as] different international NGOs. I would [add that we are working on] securing funding for projects which we did previously and which proved to be successful. One example is the program called “Girls got IT,” which we won an award for recently. We now are looking to fund this program again. Finally we want to develop programs by LLWB.  

If I hypothesize that you were to come in contact with an impact investment program that is not applying the gender lens but instead focuses on rural populations or refugees, how would you interact with such a program? 

I would make sure that women are not excluded from it. LLWB was for example [involved with] the Lebanese Women Angel Fund [LWAF], which provided funding to startups. It did not give funding [only] to startups that were women-led, but [the startups] had to have a certain percentage of representation of women [in ownership]; this is I think how we would look at [a program that does not explicitly prioritize women].

It was my impression that LWAF is currently not active. Are you planning to activate it again?

It is currently not active but it stays in our [sights] because it was definitely one of the very successful and impactful projects that we have done. 

How many members do you see LLWB as having by end of next year, 2022? 

I am happy with our growth and that we are continuing to grow. It is not about a target number for the end of the year. Not about the members, not at all. I would put a different target and say that by the end of the year we want to have secured at least three funded projects that are women based. I would obsess over this more than over the network [size]. You see, a lot of the work that we do is not directed to the members. We have a lot of beneficiaries that are not members and [the number of beneficiaries] is the number I would care more about.

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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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