The Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH) is a local non-profit, non-partisan Lebanese human rights organization in Beirut that was established by the Franco-Lebanese Movement SOLIDA (Support for Lebanese Detained Arbitrarily) in 2006. SOLIDA has been active since 1996 in the struggle against arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance and the impunity of those perpetrating gross human violations.

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December 8, 2014

The Daily Star - Lebanese women underrepresented in the workplace, December 08, 2014

Mazin Sidahmed

Women in Lebanon continue to outnumber men in universities but are underrepresented in the workplace due to social norms, discrimination by employers and an inhospitable economy, experts say. The World Economic Forum’s annual Gender Gap Report found that only 26 percent of working-age women are in the workforce in Lebanon, compared to 76 percent for men. There were particularly few female legislators, senior officials and managers.

However, Lebanon ranked first in terms of the proportion of women in secondary and postsecondary education, with more women enrolled than men.

Social norms that dictate that women should give up work in order to attend to domestic duties are the most evident reason for the lack of women in Lebanon’s labor force.

A study on women in the labor force in Lebanon by the Collective for Research and Training on Development found that social norms limited women’s professional activity and that some women preferred to stay at home, rather than fulfill career aspirations.

This mentality is common throughout the Arab world, and is the main reason why, according to United Nations agency the International Labor Organization, Arab women are the least economically active on the planet.

Lebanese women are more active than most of their Arab neighbors, but by global standards, Lebanon still trails far behind.

Most women that overcome these social norms enter the services industry. Banking, finance, trade and tourism employ about 70 percent of working women.

According to a survey of 342 Lebanese female workers by the World Bank in 2009, 68 percent of all women workers are single and young – the average age is 31.

Wages, flexibility of work, the workplace’s proximity to home and the availability of nursery places were the main priorities of women seeking work.

Entering the labor force comes with its own set of difficulties. According to Economist Muna Khalaf, employers are often wary of hiring women.

“Women are joining the labor force, but priority is given to men in general,” Khalaf told The Daily Star. “If [an employer is] given a choice between someone who is equally qualified, [the employer] would choose the man.”

Khalaf gave the example of a banking executive she had spoken with who said that he preferred to hire men, as women were likely to become less productive once they married and had children.

There is also a lack of female employers, a problem faced by societies across the globe. Women often have difficulties rising to hiring positions within companies as they hit the ‘glass ceiling’ – a phrase used to define the barrier stopping minorities and women from advancing within their careers.

Nassib Ghobril, a senior economist at Byblos Bank, believes that Lebanon has many capable women in the labor force, and questioned the methodology that had been used in the WEF’s report.

He said Byblos Bank provided a family friendly environment and any employer would lose out if they discriminated against women.

“Someone who tells you: ‘I don’t recruit women because they’re going to get married and have children’ [is hurting] their institution,” Ghobril told The Daily Star.

“[The] female participation rate ... depends on the sector you’re looking at – I cannot generalize. If you look at the banking sector, for example, there is a more accurate representation of the population in the labor force.

“I can tell you for example the ratio is 50/50 at Byblos Bank.”

The law and the economy play a factor in making the labor market a suitable environment for women.

Currently, laws that directly affect women are often contradictory. For instance, a labor law introduced in 2000 that called for no discrimination between women and men in the workplace also introduced a 7-week maternity leave; this contradicts the Social Security Code, which gives women 10 weeks maternity leave. Both are lower than the ILO-recommended 14 weeks.

There are also no laws on equal pay within the private sector, which has led to inequalities in what women and men receive for the same work.

Economist Kamal Hamadan said that the main issue was that the Lebanese economy did not create jobs that were suitable for highly educated women.

The economy in Lebanon has experienced “jobless growth” over the past several years, Hamadan said. Even during its peak growth period, 2007-2010, the job market experienced little expansion, which meant that highly educated graduates – who were mostly women – lacked job opportunities.

“Seventy percent of investment in Lebanon is going to construction,” Hamadan explained. “Construction does not provide jobs for ... highly qualified males or females.”

While structural changes such as laws and economic policies may take time to reform, Khalaf believes that social norms in Lebanon are shifting to make entering the workforce easier for women in Lebanon.

She said she had noticed more men taking on the homemaking responsibilities, and the high cost of living in Lebanon was forcing families to accept that there was a need for two breadwinners in the home.

“In Lebanon, it’s very expensive so even if they don’t want to, most [women] very often have to try and join the labor market just to make ends meet,” she said.

“With the woman working and the man working, I think things are slightly improving. The man has to share with his wife, the way she shares with him in covering expenses, the duties of the parent.”

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