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Reaping windfalls of inclusion

Where the moral and the economic right align

by Thomas Schellen

Once upon a time in the North – before conflicts in the hills of this country were fought to the point of slaughter among cousins – a young women of high social standing announced to her father and her peers that she was going to be a serious journalist. Shock. Her social circles were aghast. The erstwhile journalist, who today is an octogenarian lady of renown, wistfully explains to this unbelieving writer over a cup of coffee how her aspiration to undertake such a “mud raking” work was anathema her social class in the early 1960s, scandalous to her student peers, and worrying to her father. 

As news of her career dream was racing along the grapevine in a proud Lebanese mountain town, it took a visit by the newspaper’s editor-in-chief from Beirut to reassure her father and placate his fears before he allowed his daughter to pursue this unladylike endeavor. To his credit, he did. It also took quite a few blunt displays of her confidence and determination in the faces of her, perhaps somewhat jealous, peers before the young lady’s life choices would be accepted by her female age mates. 

She embarked on writing and later on pursued even more daring public ambitions where she competed against the views of many men of power. She launched an NGO despite being resisted by women caught in the old status quo of social behaviors, the lady (whose name does not matter in this context and shall not be revealed) explains. Then she goes on to reflect on the great strides that today’s female professionals have made in Lebanon, and the many more strides that are still needed before true equality will be a thing in the country’s civil society, in the workplaces, and, most difficult of all, in the political arena. 

One morale of the story: gender gaps are glaring facts of economic life for women in every existing society today but also indisputably a matter of perspective, in as much that their present severity and extent tend to become infinitesimal when compared to the historical experiences of earlier generations of women. This factoid, however, does not change the need to reduce the gender gap that exists in the average Lebanese workplace and that is far too large and daunting from the vantage point of many a digital native or millennial who is thinking about her dream career or starting her enterprise. 

Questions beyond advocacy

It is not that there is a blatant lack of advocacy for gender equality, diversity, and the rights of women in Lebanese society. If one were to speak of society’s great and shameful deficiency, it wouldn’t be absence of advocacy but the failing transmission of female rage and skills into the political arena and the blockage of female opportunities in elections. Women’s participation in the economy, however, is another and perhaps more urgent issue. 

On this front of workplace inclusion, diversity, assurance of freedom from harassment, defense of dignity of female labor, and the need to reduce the gender gap in pay and career opportunities, it is firstly notable that there are purely local as well as globally rooted action groups that are at time of this writing stepping up their efforts of building a more gender-equitable economy. 

Of course, the complexity of Lebanon’s economy (one of this country’s intangible and important assets) means that there is not one single path to greater gender equity. Female-led enterprises are found in all categories of enterprises, from single proprietor and operator nano ventures over family businesses and private partnerships to listed corporations of any size. 

However, women-led entrepreneurial and small companies face specific hurdles such as especially difficult access to finance and distrust from established “male” counterparts in their supply chains, family owned businesses have to conquer cultural hurdles of traditional patriarchic orientation (this report entails stories on the challenges of female-led entrepreneurial and family companies). Large state-affiliate or privately held corporations are by all evidence not exactly part of the business and shareholder participation experience and scrutiny of their behaviors under environmental, social, and governance (ESG) principles that defines the goals and behaviors of stock-exchange listed companies. 

Complicating the task of promoting female businesses and gender equality in workplaces further is the fact that some industries are still farther away from achieving inclusion than others. In the MENA region, the female labor participation rate varies in different industries, says Lama Moussawi, the director of the Center for Inclusive Business Leadership (CIBL) at the American University of Beirut. Among six sectors or industries researched previously by CIBL – healthcare, education, financial services, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), professional services, and other services – women’s participation is highest in healthcare and lowest in STEM, she explains.

CIBL has embarked in the past year on a project that is known by the abbreviation SAWI, short for Support and Accelerate Women’s Inclusion. In its first phase, the project targeted a broad selection of companies in eight MENA countries for developing and eventually practicing policies that govern and will improve inclusion of women in the sectors of recruitment, promotion, and retention. Working with country partners, between eight and ten companies joined the project in each included country. “We were so far able to implement 80 policies by working with employers in the region,” Moussawi says. 

In addition, the SAWI project entails a genderlens investment component that measures listed companies in the eight countries (Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia) where SAWI has been allowed to operate. According to Moussawi the component’s approach is somewhat digressing from conventional narrow gender lens focus in that it seeks to direct investments to “companies that are inclusive or are investing efforts towards becoming inclusive.” Nonetheless, the effort which looked at 515 listed companies (notably not including the regionally important stock exchanges of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, or Egypt) only found 12 companies that fulfilled three or four categories of inclusive organizational behavior. 

Asked if the SAWI project and the existence of CIBL is in itself secure in the torrents of the Lebanese crisis, Moussawi explains that the team of CIBL is highly committed and has withstood the outward migration pressures that Lebanese professionals and high achievers have been exposed to. She adds that CIBL also benefits from strong support by the leadership of AUB and the Olayan School of Business. Although the initially expected endowment type funding has been redirected to the benefit of AUB students that are in greater need of aid, Moussawi says that several unsolicited international funding offers have been made to CIBL. “The outlook for funding is good because what we are doing is very important for the region,” she enthuses.

In a separate conversation, Olfat Khattar, regional project manager of the SAWI project, confirms that the CIBL team is highly committed to its task. Describing her work as something that is “more than a job”, she says, “We feel that there is harmony between us and the work that we do. We belong to this CIBL and feel very happy with the work and I feel that this was the main reason for continuing the work. We are very excited about the target of the SAWI project, working on making policies making it more inclusive to help women to contribute and be part of formal business.” 

With CIBL declaring to have mastered challenges of access to financing and preservation of human capital that ring familiar in the context of the Lebanese crisis, two other inclusion-minded organizations – the female-majority Lebanese League of Women in Business (LLWB) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) oriented Global Compact Network Lebanon (GCNL) – concede to Executive in conversations for this report that they have stumbled in their membership growth, had to interrupt programming, or have suffered some depletion of human capital.

But against the ill winds of the economic crisis and the pandemic, these organizations have proved their mettle; instead of curbing, they are continuing and expanding, all three having recently ignited new growth and new programs. 

In another notable distinction of the three values inspired and female managed organizations, they are collaborative and actively reaching out across boundaries of industries, language, sectopolitics, religion, or gender. In this they are juxtaposing their conciliatory approaches and factual collaborations to the fateful heritage that more traditional business organizations have exhibited in communal fragmentation of allegiances. 

To cite one person demonstrating this behavior, Cynthia Haddad Abi Khater is an industrialist and part-owner of engineering solutions and automation company Technica International, an enterprise with about 200 employees and three international locations that are currently operating or being set up. She is invested into the company’s participation in the SAWI program and also board member of the LLWB organization. “As organization, we have always reached out to other NGOs and other platforms. We have always called for closing ranks and said together we will be able to achieve more impact. All LLWB projects tried to rope in other NGOs and organizations,” she says and tells Executive about the collaboration philosophy practiced by LLWB that there are two models, one of collaboration and one where an organization will many times be talking about the same issues as another organization but both are talking in isolation from each other. 

“At other times we feel, no, there is a true consortium of efforts working towards a common goal. It is this option when we are working as a consortium that we are more effective. We and other organizations working in this field are doing our best to share the knowledge and change the mentality of employers, show the positive side and the better future for employers if they improve their policies and make them more inclusive.” 

The GCNL organization is one of 70 national networks worldwide that are associated with the United Nations Global Compact, the set of business principles first pronounced in the year 2000 by then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and with the promulgation of the UN’s 17 sustainable Development Goals, the famous SDRs. 

Deenah Fakhoury, the executive director of GCNL admits that the network had to re-dynamize in 2021 after being impacted by the Lebanese crisis and has adopted two main targets of awareness generation and membership expansion for 2022. ““The ten Principles [of the Global Compact] are part of the way we work and the SDGs are the targets that we want to reach. Our mandate is to work with businesses on the sustainability term. We are there to be able to guide them to meet the 2030 agenda each one at their own scale and within the scope of work that they do. We do this through training, programs, accelerators, webinars, meetings and roundtables,” she says. 

However, while the entire SDR spectrum is driving the GCNL agenda, Fakhoury holds one SDG as especially dear. “There are one or two SDGs, which relate to economic empowerment, that are in my humble opinion extremely important today. Once you have economic empowerment, all the rest will fall in. If you have education and economic empowerment, these two elements will affect life on land, life under water, poverty, hunger, [and] gender equality, because at the end of the day, because at the end of the day these are the two main [SDG targets] where in my opinion the focus should be.” 

Female empowerment and gender equality is the SDG 5, and it is the SDG that Lebanese companies according to Fakhoury have in recent years shown the greatest interest in learning about, ticking it as their top choice for workshops and program participation, despite the many challenges that they face in their daily operations. 

The interviewees of the three organizations are in strong agreement that Lebanon today has something good going for itself, namely its female human capital, and that the quality of both young university students and graduates but also the commitments of large business organizations and individual corporate leaders are things that make it worth being in the country. 

“We have reached a point where one cannot ignore the percentage of women in your company and organization. We and definitely other organizations working in this field are doing our best to share the knowledge and change the mentality of employers, to show the positive side and the better future for employers if they improve their policies and make it more inclusive,” says CIBL’s Khattar. 

”Even If you live in unstable environment, you can have stable growth of awareness. We consistently and constantly [encounter] companies that are eager to sign up to our programs,” GCNL’s Fakhoury and senior GCNL programs manager Susu Smaili concur in one voice. 


Avenues of building valuable and inclusive companies of purpose can be many but where can companies in the Middle East start this journey? Answers for the regional road to gender equity and inclusiveness are offered by Lama Moussawi, director at the Center for Inclusive Business Leadership (CIBL) at the American University of Beirut (AUB). CIBL is a regionally leading facilitator of gender equity through the Knowledge is Power (KIP), KIP Index, and Support and Accelerate Women’s Inclusion (SAWI) projects.

Will we see an increase in the number of CIBL project on regional and Lebanese scale in 2022?

To me it is not about the number of projects that we take but about the impact. We recently were invited to submit two proposals to get funding, but it is about the impact. We cannot take on a lot of projects, we need to prioritize. At the core of what we do is change the structures.

You said we cannot measure the impacts of the regional economic turmoil of the past two years but do you expect women in the workplace to be winners or losers of the changing economic situation in Middle Eastern economies?

We worked with 80 companies across the region to implement inclusive policies and this means that 175,000 female employees were directly affected by the policies that were implemented. We trained 500 plus executives [in virtual workshops attached to AUB executive education program] and we have more training modules that we are going to launch. We collected data from 1,700 employers, 550 [of them] women. These are impacting numbers. With respect to Lebanon, we are working on creating more inclusive workplaces and have been able to implement inclusive policies in Lebanese companies. This for sure will have an impact. But things need time to happen and for the impact to show. We want to promote women’s participation in the economic workforce in Lebanon and across the MENA region. That is the objective of everything we do.

Lebanon today looks to the least predictable economy out of almost all countries around the world. Under those highly uncertain conditions, do you see the role of women in the economy as increasing, decreasing, or unchanged?

This is an important question. I don’t know and will be able to get back to you once we have the data that we are collecting from the Lebanese workplace [as part of the regional SAWI project and KIP follow-up].

So I am asking for some prophecy, but what is your vision for the role of women in the Lebanese workplace?

I want women to be involved in all aspects of the Lebanese economy, in the workplace, in the political area. In everything, women need to be given the opportunity to prove themselves and take us to a better [place], working hand in hand with their male counterparts.

Do you see a better chance to achieve this role of women in the economic sphere, in the political sphere, or is it all the same?

I think in Lebanon we can start with the economic sphere. I try not to watch the news because we lost hope [in the political sphere].

Businesses everywhere want even playing fields and don’t want uncertainty but Lebanese politics seems to be based on factors one cannot be certain of. Do you see the role of the economy for bringing overall change in Lebanon today as more important than it was ten years ago?

I think if we build inclusive and equitable workplaces, this can have a good impact on the entire country. My only other message would be that we welcome at CIBL any employers and investors and are happy to partner with them to drive [the development of] more inclusive workplaces.

When teaming up with investors in the development of more inclusive workplaces, would you favor impact investors or would that be all types of investors?

We like to work with all investors, including impact investors. It could be financial institutions like banks, because banks are investors. Investors could be anybody, international or local, who invest in the Middle East.

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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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