Different factors influence women’s participation in the workforce in Lebanon, some are cultural, and others are structural. Women participation in the workforce brings forth both societal and economic benefits.
Sara Abdel Latif and Fida Alameddine
Women’s participation in the workforce has been on the rise in Lebanon. However, it is still staggered by cultural and structural factors, some of which are context specific. Women represent 25.9% of the working population in Lebanon while men’s participation ups to 76.2% . The women’s presence in leadership positions further alters the rate of workforce participation, whereby only 8.4% of legislative, managerial, and senior positions are held by women in comparison to 91.6% of males. Contrary to the low female participation in the workforce in Lebanon, data reveals that there is an almost equal gender distribution of across educational levels in Lebanon.1
Trends of women participation in the workforce
There are different factors that influence women’s participation in the workforce in Lebanon, some are cultural, and others are structural. Cultural factors may be perceived as difficult to alter, while structural factors may be addressed through policies and procedures that can be integrated into employment systems.
Cultural factors define gender roles within Lebanese society, limiting women engagement in the workforce. Assy and Sayed (2018) estimated that only 40% of women compared to 90% of men aged between 25 and 34 years are at work. In contrast statistics show a higher percentage of women, compared to men, pursue graduate studies directly after finishing their BA, instead of seeking employment. For example, during the current academic year 2018-19, there are about 62.4% female students enrolled at the American University of Beirut (AUB) pursuing graduate studies while there are only 37.5% male students.2 This is further influenced by the patriarchal perception of the different roles associated with gender within the society. In fact, men feel obliged to work because they are perceived as the breadwinners of the household while women are expected to take care ofhousehold duties, children, and the elderly. Additionally, the society places greater value for the careers of men. However, the socio-economic situation within Lebanon has challenged this perception and pushed more women into the workforce.
Furthermore, structural factors within the work environment present two key challenges for women, mainly discrimination and harassment. Discrimination takes on several facets, one of which is the gender wage gap, limited professional development and training opportunities, an undermining of women’s professional capabilities, and a preference to hire males. These challenges make it difficult for women to ascend the career ladder. Therefore, there seems to be few women leaders who can be role models and mentors for younger Lebanese women.
Harassment presents another challenge for women within the work place. Females are in many instances verbally, physically, and sexually harassed by colleagues, superiors, clients, and sometimes visitors at work. Unfortunately, very few women report these harassment incidents for various reasons, be it seen as a taboo, or due to fear of losing their job, but primarily because the lack in policies and procedures on how to report and address harassment.
Initiatives for women empowerment
There are several recent initiatives that have been launched in Lebanon in order to advocate for the empowerment of women in the workforce. These initiatives highlight various work-related gender gaps and inequalities. The National Commission for Lebanese Women (NCLW) was initiated in 1998 following the parliament’s adoption of the law 720. The commission launched the National Strategy for Women in Lebanon 2011-2021. The strategy aimed to achieve “full equality between men and women in all fields and sectors and in decision-making positions.” However, aiming for inclusion across all sectors within the labor market does not put an end to the challenges that women face in the workplace. The Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality (AFE) shared a powerful video, part of an awareness campaign targeting harassment in the workplace. This video was a first of its kind, and it encouraged the public to ponder and reflect upon the harassment and abuse practices that women face at work. This campaign also included guidelines on how institutions can prevent sexual harassment from occurring.
AUB, one of the largest employers in the country, is active in addressing gender inequality in the workplace through initiatives, policies and procedures. In fact, the university established the Taskforce on Lives and Careers of Women Faculty at AUB in 2015 addressing gender inequalities among faculty members and improving the lives of female academicians. This Taskforce was transformed into a permanent standing committee for all Women at AUB in 2018. Its vision aims to “support and advance women at AUB by furthering the professional development and leadership capabilities of female faculty, staff, and students through concrete proposals and initiatives”.3 This is an example of efforts to enhance the work experience of female staff and faculty. The university has developed policies addressing sexual and other discriminatory harassment in order to promote a safe and ethical work and academic environment in which members of the AUB community, including students, faculty, staff, alumni, trainees, visitors, and patients, are free from discrimination and harassment of all kinds.4
AUB’s women empowering initiatives not only address female employees, but also empower women within the Lebanese society. AUB’s Knowledge is Power project (KIP), established in 2015, created a platform for different stakeholders working on women issues. It has received great support from the Lebanese youth in various universities. KIP has also launched campaigns to raise awareness against harassment among them #notyourashta and the #meshbasita hashtags on social media. These campaigns witnessed positive responses and engagement of women worldwide, along with national and international media coverage.5 Furthermore, KIP is generating data to better understand the situation and to give evidence-based recommendations through producing research on women and harassment in the workplace.
Women participations in the workforce brings forth both societal and economic benefits. The 2015 McKinsey Global Institute report clearly notes that a “full potential scenario,” in which women are equal participants within the workforce, increases global GDP by $28 trillion by 2025. Lebanon is no exception to these global trends, although some context related cultural and structural factors may still hinder women presence in the local workforce. Addressing structural factors may be a slow process, however through developing policies and procedures, at the institutional and national level, Lebanese women can feel safe, dignified and included. Legal reforms that protect women from any form of discrimination or harassment are critical. Institutional policies that ensure a safe working environment are also important.
On the other hand, addressing cultural factors, that still impact women’s participation in the workforce will be a long and difficult process. Nevertheless, incremental procedures in the education sector, such as providing career guidance and awareness to female youth will enable to make informed, educated decisions that will guide their choices when they enter the labor market.
Last but foremost, national commissions, civil society organizations, and women must continue to lobby for legal reforms and institutional change to ensure that younger women feel motivated, safe, and supported to join workforce with dignity, which will in turn impact Lebanon a positively on the social and economic levels.
1 Data from CERD indicates that during the academic year 2017 – 18, there were 51.8% male and 48.3% female students at the elementary level, 48.5% male and 51.5% female students at the middle level, and 44.4% male and 55.6% female students at the secondary level.
2 Graduate studies refer to Master’ and Ph.D. degrees.
3 Interview with Lama Moussawi from the Committee of the Lives and Careers of Women at AUB.
4 Interview with Mitra Tauk from Equity/Title IX Office.
5 Interview with Charlotte Karam and May Ghanem from the KIP Project.
American University of Beirut. (2019). Common Data Set 2018-19. Retrieved from http://www.aub.edu.lb/oira/Documents/Common%20Data%20Set/cds_201819.pdf
Assy, A., & Sayed, H. (2018). Why aren’t more Lebanese women working? MENA Knowledge and Learning: Quick Notes Series, 170. Retrieved from http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/919711526913175663/pdf/126361-BRI-add-series-PUBLIC-QN-170.pdf
Center for Educational Research and Development. (2018). Statistical Bulletin for the Academic Year 2017-2018. Retrieved from https://www.crdp.org/files/201803190157241.pdf
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Wharton: University of Pennsylvania. Public Policy Initiative. (September 16, 2018). Female Participation Benefits to the Labor Force. Available at: https://publicpolicy.wharton.upenn.edu/live/news/2611-female-participation-benefits-to-the-labor-force
World Economic Forum. (2018). The Global Gender Gap Report 2018. Switzerland: World Economic Forum