TBY gathered some of Lebanon's business leaders to discuss the issue of encouraging gender equality in the public sector and workplace, fostering female entrepreneurship, and accelerating gender parity in Lebanon.

Mona Bawarshi
Gezairi Transport
Tamara Salha
Hotel Manager
Phoenicia Beirut
Raya Haffar  Al Hassan
Tripoli Special Economic
Joelle Abou Farhat Rizkallah
Women in Front NGO
Salim Zeenni
American Lebanese Chamber of Commerce
Fouad Zmokhol
RDCL World
Rita Rizk
Managing Director

What is the nature of the debate surrounding quotas for women in the public sectors in Lebanon?

RAYA HAFFAR AL HASSAN The issue of the quota is fairly controversial, not because no one wants to execute it per se, but because it further complicates the already complex electoral system in Lebanon. Adding another layer on top of the confessional-based political system and the sociocultural sectarian values makes the whole equation significantly more complicated. In addition, parliament has passed a new proportional electoral law that further complicates the electoral process and compromises the fair representation principle. However, studies have shown that without a quota system, women in certain societies cannot reach political positions based solely on their credentials and qualifications. This is the case in Lebanon, where there were 130 female candidates and only six were able to reach Parliament, and half of which were already affiliated with certain politicians. Moreover, politicians need to realize that having women in leadership positions is not just about human rights or equality, but rather a matter of smart economics and enhancing productivity and efficiency. Diversity in politics drives economic development. This is something we need to work on as women to raise awareness on the importance of female involvement in decision making.

JOELLE ABOU FARHAT RIZKALLAH The complexity of the quota is not a reason not to implement it. A similar quota has already been implemented in 128 countries around the world, with many of those countries facing similar issues to ours here in Lebanon. It is a must. Without the quota, especially in politics, women will not be able to reach political positions. We have only had eight female ministers in Lebanon since 1945. This has, and will continue to, influence the business world.

MONA BAWARSHI I used to think quotas were insulting to women, though I later realized they could be used as a stepping stone. If having a quota is the only possible way for women to take on governmental positions, then why not? We need women everywhere. We realize it when women reach a top position, for example in Parliament, and make a huge difference.

What is the situation like in the private sector?

RITA RIZK To be able to move forward, quotas are a necessary “evil." However, in the long term, having quotas in companies and the private sector is not something that we should even consider. It should be about performance and competence and nothing else. That being said, first we need to grow the pool of women leaders and change the basis of our laws and policies to encourage more women to grow within organizations. If we look at the majority of women in business, we can see that they remain in low management positions most of the time. The involvement of men in the process is crucial.

FOUAD ZMOKHOL I am all for the quota in politics. Women want to change the system, and there was a lot of interest from women in terms of running for positions, but the result just was not there. However, when it comes to the private sector, I have a different mentality. We already have a diverse private sector, competing with any other private sector in the world. We are proud of the women who work in the Lebanese private sector. Most business owners seek to build dynamic boards of directors, and they understand that it has to include women. Yes, there are barriers for women in the private sector, and it isn't easy, but that boils down to everyday competition. It is a competitive world, and I want to keep it that way, because it is healthier for business in the long term.

TAMARA SALHA Many men are invited to sit on boards without necessarily any question regarding how effective they are in corporate governance; whilst I see more and more women, such as myself, attending workshops to get certified in corporate governance. I felt that I had to get this accreditation so that I would have more relevance and validity to address my right to be on a male-dominated board. Speaking from the perspective of family-owned businesses in the private sector, if we had a quota, it would encourage people to open their minds and be more prepared to ask for such qualifications from all contributors.

SALIM ZEENNI I am for the quotas, no question. However, we live in a country where quotas could lead to abuse. It is more a question of education. We cannot place quotas in without educating people about why they exist. There were over 100 women campaigning in the last election, though who could say if they were all qualified? I am not saying that 900 men are qualified to be in political positions either; however, quotas can lead to such a counter-argument. Still, there must definitely be a great effort to encourage more women to present themselves as candidates in general.

JOELLE ABOU FARHAT RIZKALLAH Why are we judging women at all before giving them a chance to step into public life? Let us give them a chance. Women have the right to succeed or fail, just like men. Before any woman steps into politics, people are already saying she might not have the required degree or that she may not be capable. We are judging them already. I suggest we give them a chance; let the quota give them that chance. Today, women are 30 years behind men in political life and business; the quota simply puts women on an equal footing. Since we are working with the American Lebanese Chamber of Commerce, I would like to remind everyone that the US has implemented a quota for all minorities, which includes women. This is key in enabling women have a chance to reach high positions.

How relevant is the scenario of the glass ceiling predicament for women in Lebanon at the moment?

RAYA HAFFAR AL HASSAN Most men do not comprehend what we mean by the glass ceiling. The reason why we call it the glass ceiling is because it is subliminal. It is not overt or tangible, though all women have felt it at one point or another. It creates a need for women to have to prove themselves even more and puts an additional burden on us. As women in Lebanon, we are socialized to assume a much larger workload at home, for example. The glass ceiling is there, and the fact that it is difficult for women to balance life and work makes it difficult for women to achieve higher positions. The only way to handle this, as has been done in more developed countries, is in terms of maternity and paternity leaves and flexible work schedules.

MONA BAWARSHI In regard to flexible times for men and women, I have found that introducing flexible time for women alone is not conducive to equality and respect in the workplace. When I came into power in my company, I removed flexible time as being solely for women. Flexible time should be divided between men and women.

TAMARA SALHA At the end of the day, diversity will only take place and be embedded as a culture if it comes from leadership downwards. As a woman in a leadership position, my responsibility is to open pathways so that women do not have to fight on their own. The trend in leadership, whether male or female, is shifting from the “I know it all" concept toward empathy and soft skills taking precedence. The drive for results is not at the forefront; however effective listening, empathy and people skills are also required and increasingly championed. Our duty is to focus on enabling women to make the leap from mid-management to C-level. Our responsibility is to lessen the rigidity in terms of schedule to make it possible for high-potential female talents to break the glass ceiling. It is not only up to them alone; an environment of trust and safety is required so that women believe they can come across and reach positions and share their concerns, without being judged or fearing judgment.

JOELLE ABOU FARHAT RIZKALLAH The glass ceiling is about competition. It is important for competition to be fair, though how can it be, when men have the privilege of being completely dedicated to their job, while women have domestic tasks or family responsibilities? The solution would be creating more awareness among men to handle 50% of the tasks that women have at home. I am not blaming men because they have been raised this way; it is the fault of society. We need to change this by raising awareness that women want to be fulfilled by a career as well, and they have every right to do it.

What needs to be done to encourage women in the informal sector in Lebanon?

FOUAD ZMOKHOL 12% of the world's women can be considered entrepreneurs as per recent statistics. However, we need to push to raise more awareness as well as ensure there is more advice and financial support available for women, so that they are encouraged to take more risks, and to formalize themselves in this segment. Another interesting fact is that the growth rate of entrepreneurs worldwide is 32% for men and 213% for women. There are five or six times more women looking to create companies. These are the numbers we need to think of and consider as well in the case of Lebanon. Less credit goes into newly formed companies led by women, compared to those led by men. I believe we need more newly formed companies at this stage of development in the Middle East, knowing that 86% of our economy is based on SMEs. We are entering a period where it is increasingly difficult to secure financing and interest rates are rising around the world. Companies that exist in the market are looking for young entrepreneurs of both genders to work with. We're looking for ideas, dynamism, and new propositions, and we truly hope that these are coming with women at the helm.

RAYA HAFFAR AL HASSAN Some of the solutions to boost women in the SME segment could be as easy as setting up an online portal that woman can access. Entrepreneurship and SMEs offer a way to foster gender equality, so a portal that allows women who are working from home and would like to access certain courses or material, or a forum for a debate with other women would be extremely beneficial.

The World Economic Forum predicts gender parity will not be achieved in 100 years given the current rate of change. What practical measures could be implemented to accelerate gender parity?

JOELLE ABOU FARHAT RIZKALLAH In addition to implementing a quota, I want to point out that there are many discriminatory laws in place in Lebanon. We need to allow women to pass on their nationalities to their children. We also need to create a law that would allow women to open a bank account for their children. Can you imagine a CEO of a company who cannot open a bank account for her children? All these small, discriminatory laws weaken the image of women as leaders. We need to help women in this regard.

RAYA HAFFAR AL HASSAN At government level, we have a list of measures that could be adopted; there is a great deal that can be done. Aside from the quota that must eventually be passed, there are economic and structural challenges that must be addressed; the entire economy has to be driven toward growth. There are structural rigidities in the economy that prevent us from fully exploiting the potential of women and young people as well. We could pass legislation for anti-bias and anti-sexual harassment in the workplace. We can also advocate for more transparency, such as forcing companies to publish data on the distribution of men and women in the workplace and the compensations paid to each.

RITA RIZK We also need to talk about improving education, even at a primary school level. It is worthwhile to consider the pressure placed on young boys, as well as on young girls. The former are being brought up to provide financial stability to their families and to be responsible for families' major decision makings, while the latter needs to concentrate on raising the children and taking care of household matters. This can be a huge burden on men/women who possibly see themselves in reverse roles.