Women in the work­place: An ob­sta­cle course

Le­banese women are striv­ing to con­front gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion in the work­force

Executive Magazine - - Contents - By Na­bila Rah­hal

True story: Two can­di­dates are ap­ply­ing for the post of devel­op­ment of­fi­cer at a well es­tab­lished in­sti­tu­tion in Le­banon. Can­di­date A has two years work­ing ex­pe­ri­ence over can­di­date B, nine years in to­tal, more in­ter­na­tional ex­pe­ri­ence and en­joys a wider rel­e­vant net­work of key con­tacts, hav­ing chaired char­i­ties in the in­sti­tu­tion’s field.

While can­di­date A would seem like the ob­vi­ous choice for the po­si­tion, the in­sti­tu­tion still hired can­di­date B, a male. Why? As can­di­date A, a woman, later learned from an in­side source, the hir­ing direc­tor feared that her gen­der made her an “un­sta­ble” in­vest­ment: that, while both can­di­dates were sin­gle at the time, she would get mar­ried and choose to quit her ca­reer.

Work­place dis­crim­i­na­tion comes in many forms, from racial, to age or sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, but dis­crim­i­na­tion against women in the work­force af­fects half the global pop­u­la­tion and there­fore sig­nif­i­cantly im­pacts economies world­wide.

Dis­crim­i­na­tion against women in the work­force is not re­stricted to Le­banon, and the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum’s Global Gen­der Gap 2014 in­dex shows that the gen­der gap for eco­nomic par­tic­i­pa­tion and eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity is 60 per­cent world­wide and would take 81 years to com­pletely close, if ev­ery­thing else re­mains the same.

Be­yond its hu­man rights im­pli­ca­tions, the is­sue of women in the work­force is sig­nif­i­cant be­cause stud­ies show that there is a loss in eco­nomic pro­duc­tiv­ity when women are weakly rep­re­sented in the la­bor force. Ac­cord­ing to Un­lock­ing the Full Po­ten­tial of Women in the US Econ­omy, a study con­ducted by McKin­sey and Com­pany in 2011, “the ad­di­tional pro­duc­tive power power of women en­ter­ing the work­force since the 1970s ac­counts for about a quar­ter of cur­rent GDP.”

While no such re­search ex­ists in Le­banon, what is known from the Cen­tral Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Statis­tics’ (CAS) Living Con­di­tions Sur­vey of 2007 is that women make up only 25 per­cent of the Le­banese work­force. The coun­try has sev­eral chal­lenges to ad­dress within the work­place, and at the so­ci­etal level, be­fore it can begin to close the gap and im­prove its econ­omy. “The en­tire na­tional econ­omy, the re­gional econ­omy even, is suf­fer­ing be­cause you are los­ing half the tal­ent and half the pro­duc­tiv­ity that could come from women,” says Dima Ja­mali, pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and as­so­ciate dean for fac­ulty at the Sulie­man S. Olayan School of Busi­ness at the Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity of Beirut.


Ac­cord­ing to the Global Gen­der Gap 2014 re­port, which rates coun­tries on four dif­fer­ent sub in­dexes, in­clud­ing women’s ed­u­ca­tional at­tain­ment, Le­banon is in the top per­centile when it comes to ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion. This is sup­ported by CAS statis­tics which show that women con­sti­tute 55 per­cent of stu­dents in higher ed­u­ca­tion.

Such an in­vest­ment in ed­u­ca­tion, which is also true for women in the Arab re­gion, is not be­ing trans­lated in their ca­reers. “Women in the Arab re­gion are gain­ing more uni­ver­sity ed­u­ca­tion than a decade ago, but this is re­flected nei­ther in their em­ploy­ment nor into their ad­vance­ment to higher level man­age­rial po­si­tions,” says Ja­mali.


Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from uni­ver­sity, both gen­ders ini­tially begin ap­ply­ing for posts in their cho­sen pro­fes­sion. Ac­cord­ing to Rana Sal­hab, part­ner at Deloitte & Touche and an ad­vo­cate for women’s ad­vance­ment, while the hir­ing process

among gen­ders is al­most even in most pro­fes­sions, fields such as en­gi­neer­ing are skewed to men. Ac­cord­ing to num­bers from the Le­banese Or­der of Physi­cians (for all cazas ex­cept North Le­banon) male physi­cians far out­weigh fe­males with only 2,652 fe­males doc­tors in Le­banon out of a to­tal of 11,341.

Ac­cord­ing to Roula El-Masri, gen­der equal­ity pro­gram manager at ABAAD, a Le­banese re­source cen­ter for gen­der equal­ity, hir­ing is not equal among both gen­ders when some fields are per­ceived as “men’s work”, while oth­ers are the domain of women. “Women are mainly em­ployed in the ser­vices in­dus­try, in ad­ver­tis­ing or public re­la­tions, or in the fields of ed­u­ca­tion or nurs­ing. This is a form of dis­crim­i­na­tion as not all ca­reers op­por­tu­ni­ties are equally open to them,” says Masri. CAS’s 2007 Living Con­di­tions Sur­vey shows that 64 per­cent of work­ing women are in­deed em­ployed in the ser­vices sec­tor ver­sus 34.2 per­cent of em­ployed males.

The coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal scene is dom­i­nated by men. “Even if we take [the 128 mem­ber] par­lia­ment as an ex­am­ple — there are four fe­male par­lia­men­tar­i­ans. In a coun­try where women are as ed­u­cated and as present in public life as in Le­banon, it’s a very sur­pris­ing statis­tic,” says Lama Fakih, the Syria and Le­banon re­searcher at Hu­man Rights Watch (HRW).


Af­ter the first few years of work, the num­ber of women in the la­bor force be­gins to ta­per off. “When you move for­ward along the ca­reer path a lit­tle bit, women exit the work­force ear­lier than men. This is why the per­cent­age of women in your or­ga­ni­za­tion pyra­mid, which starts off as al­most 50/50, gets less and, glob­ally, women in lead­er­ship po­si­tions are barely a hand­ful,” ex­plains Sal­hab.

As per CAS’ sur­vey, only 29.8 per­cent of Le­banese women sur­veyed were eco­nom­i­cally ac­tive be­tween the ages of 23 and 29. That per­cent­age ta­pers off to 24.3 be­tween the ages of 35 and 39.

The first age bracket cor­re­lates with the age where some peo­ple con­sider get­ting mar­ried and start­ing a fam­ily. While leg­is­la­tion in coun­tries such as Swe­den, Canada or the UK see child rear­ing as a shared re­spon­si­bil­ity — award­ing both par­ents leave from work when their child is born — the Arab re­gion, Le­banon in­cluded, does not. “A woman’s role is pri­mar­ily per­ceived to be at home, rais­ing the chil­dren and man­ag­ing the house­hold. If she is to work out­side of the home, it is of­ten viewed as sec­ondary to her role at home or only to com­ple­ment her hus­band fi­nan­cially when eco­nomic times are tough,” says Masri.

Th­ese re­spon­si­bil­i­ties make main­tain­ing a ca­reer dif­fi­cult for most women. “There is a lot of pres­sure on them to be avail­able for the role of mother and be avail­able for moth­er­hood and do­mes­tic roles, as op­posed to pro­duc­tive roles in the work­place. Women feel and see this pres­sure and this is the pri­mary ex­pla­na­tion, from a cul­tural and so­cial per­spec­tive, as to why women’s ed­u­ca­tional at­tain­ment is not re­flected in their la­bor force rep­re­sen­ta­tion,” ex­plains Ja­mali.

Ac­cord­ing to HRW’s Fakih, once women do opt out of their ca­reers for mar­riage pur­poses — glob­ally — it is not tem­po­rary. “Even in cases where women do di­vorce, they have a very dif­fi­cult time get­ting back into the la­bor force af­ter this pro­longed ab­sence,” she adds.

This early exit from women in the work­place could ex­plain the low num­bers for the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women in the la­bor force.



Other women de­cide to bal­ance both roles, de­spite the dif­fi­cul­ties. All the women in top po­si­tions pro­filed by Ex­ec­u­tive for this re­port (see page 52) said that bal­anc­ing their per­sonal life with their ca­reers is a chal­leng­ing task, one that women at all lev­els strug­gle with.

Women are at a ca­reer dis­ad­van­tage in that they have to also give time to their obligations as care­givers, within the con­text of Le­banese so­ci­ety, while men can fo­cus only on their ca­reer. “Women who do re­main in the la­bor force take on po­si­tions that al­low them to bal­ance their pri­vate re­spon­si­bil­i­ties with their work re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. So that means, in many cases and in many in­dus­tries, not work­ing long hours, not hav­ing travel com­mit­ments and not be­ing at a se­nior po­si­tion,” says Fakih.

Such con­se­quences place women at a dis­ad­van­tage when it comes to in­vest­ing time and de­vel­op­ing in their ca­reers. “There is also a glass ceil­ing which we can­not deny and a cer­tain bias in pro­mo­tions mainly be­cause the top lev­els of or­ga­ni­za­tions are usu­ally dom­i­nated by men who think and make pro­mo­tions with con­scious and un­con­scious bi­ases. There are mul­ti­ple fac­tors we need to be aware of,” says Sal­hab.

As Sal­hab ex­plains, th­ese mul­ti­ple fac­tors in­clude as­sum­ing that a lead­er­ship po­si­tion re­quires a man or that an equally qual­i­fied woman would not be as com­mit­ted as a man for a top man­age­ment role be­cause of her do­mes­tic obligations. In the Le­banese con­text, this would im­ply that a woman might get called to go home if a child is sick or she may not be able to travel and leave her chil­dren.

An as­so­ci­ated chal­lenge which women face in the work­force is the dis­crim­i­na­tion in pay be­tween them and their male col­leagues for the same job. This is a global is­sue — the pay gap in the United States for ex­am­ple is 80 cents to the dollar — and although there are no statis­tics for this in the Le­banese la­bor force, the CAS’ 2007 sur­vey notes a 6 per­cent gen­der pay gap over­all, ex­ceed­ing 30 per­cent in some em­ploy­ment sec­tors.


In the face of such ca­reer ob­sta­cles and dis­crim­i­na­tion, it would be easy to give up on the ad­vance­ment of women in the work­place but this at­ti­tude would not be con­ducive to change or growth in the econ­omy.

The ca­reer women and ex­perts in­ter­viewed agree that the ba­sic step for change in Le­banon is the em­pow­er­ment of women at all lev­els. This need for em­pow­er­ment starts with laws that dis­crim­i­nate against women in their pri­vate life en­croach­ing on their abil­ity to fully per­form in their public life, such as the per­sonal sta­tus laws (see page 80). “We con­tinue to see an un­der­min­ing of women’s au­ton­omy, of women’s rights, in a way that in­ter­feres with their abil­ity to en­gage in public life,” says Fakih giv­ing a sim­ple ex­am­ple of how women don’t have the author­ity to open a bank ac­count for their chil­dren, which weak­ens their sense of em­pow­er­ment and so­ci­ety’s view of them as lead­ers.

In the tan­gi­ble sense, laws and poli­cies sup­port­ing women in the la­bor force, at the gov­ern­ment and cor­po­rate lev­els, need to be in­tro­duced into the sys­tem. Nayla Geagea, a lawyer spe­cial­iz­ing in hu­man rights, ex­plains that up un­til now, Le­banon doesn’t have a com­pre­hen­sive legal sys­tem that en­sures gen­der equal­ity and it is dif­fi­cult to cre­ate one be­cause there is no real mon­i­tor­ing sys­tem that would lead to com­pre­hen­sive and ac­cu­rate fig­ures on the work­place en­vi­ron­ment. This is ex­em­pli­fied by the fact that the most re­cent na­tional study re­gard­ing women’s rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the work­force, used in this ar­ti­cle, is from 2007.

Some laws have been cre­ated, such as the law that extends ma­ter­nity leave from 49 to 79 days which was passed in par­lia­ment in April 2014. There are two draft laws be­ing pre­pared in the frame­work of women’s rights — one against sex­ual ha­rass­ment in the work­place and an­other for al­low­ing women to have their chil­dren and hus­band as their de­pen­dents un­der NSSF in­sur­ance.

Yet, Geagea warns against fo­cus­ing only on chang­ing laws at the macro level. “Of course we need to talk about a change in the legal frame­work but at the same time, we need to keep in mind how long it takes to achieve legal change. This means, other ini­tia­tives should start at the level of the cor­po­ra­tions. Women who are work­ing in th­ese en­vi­ron­ments should im­pose stan­dards and min­i­mum con­di­tions,” she says.

Sal­hab sug­gests that cor­po­ra­tions could adopt fe­male friendly poli­cies such as part time or flex­i­ble work­ing hours to their own ad­van­tage, giv­ing an ex­am­ple of how a ded­i­cated and hard­work­ing fe­male col­league in Deloitte’s Le­banon of­fice was pro­moted to direc­tor, de­spite her work­ing part time hours.

A pol­icy that helps en­sure an equal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women in top man­age­ment po­si­tions is the quota sys­tem, which guar­an­tees a per­cent­age of women in cer­tain po­si­tions. It is a law in some coun­tries like France and a vol­un­tary cor­po­rate pol­icy in oth­ers such as Ger­many. In Le­banon, sug­gests Sal­hab, gen­der quo­tas could be ini­ti­ated at the level of the par­lia­ment and the min­istries and in the form of tar­gets in cor­po­ra­tions (in­crease the num­ber of women by x per­cent) as that would bet­ter take into ac­count the sit­u­a­tion in the coun­try.

The path to an equal and fair rep­re­sen­ta­tion of both gen­ders in the work­place is long and progress has been slow both glob­ally and in Le­banon. Yet, the fact that more peo­ple in Le­banon are pub­licly ad­dress­ing is­sues of women’s rights, and rec­og­niz­ing the eco­nomic im­por­tance of in­creas­ing women’s rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the work­force, is cer­tainly a step for­ward on that jour­ney.


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