Welcome to Lebanon, the land of tabbouleh and hummus, sea and mountains, arak and wine. Welcome to the Mekka of plastic surgery and castration, schizophrenia and lethargy, hijab and short skirts, war, neo-feudalism, corruption and political-sectarian mafias and tribes… Welcome to a country where people magazines and soap operas continue to pigeonhole women as objects, bypassing their social/political and professional talents in the process; a country where domestic violence is not criminalized, and family ‘honor’ is still linked with women’s hymen; a country where many women in the workplace are sexually harassed without having the right to defend themselves!
The results of a qualitative research I conducted with 40 women in private and public institutions in 2012-2013, reveal the following:
1- Lebanese Corporate life is still essentially a man’s world where women have to fight hard to climb the ladder.
2- Most women in the current Lebanese corporate world pushed for their right to enter it, but the culture had already solidified, and it hasn’t changed much. Women have to conform to it or go home. It’s still part of an inadequate paradigm that women have been told to live in.
3- Women have not been in on making the rules, but for some reason, they are mostly playing by them.
4- The working world is still clearly stacked against female workers. Women are paid 15 to 60 cents on the male dollar.
5- Women are 56% percent of the population, but only 20% in the workforce and less than 1% of corporate leadership.
6- Even armed with the best of intentions and excellent CVs, there still are women who, despite a portfolio of accomplishment, fall into the trap of looking to be rescued, with less than stellar results.
7- While there are men who welcome the existence of dual income households, and marriages marked by shared responsibilities, the majority still want to be the primary breadwinner. The younger generation of men tends to be more accepting of women’s work roles, but many are reluctant to accept her role as co-provider.
8- Social pressures discouraging women from working outside the home (and especially married women) have not fallen.
9- If you are labeled ‘beautiful woman’ (according to certain physical standards), do not expect to reach high positions unless you become physically ‘neutral’ (i.e. ‘sans saveur ni odeur’). However, if you are ‘neutral’ or ‘ugly’ according to your superiors, you will most likely never reach a higher position. Appearance is still a component of the professional toolkit. Looking polished is part of the professional package, and sometimes, looking bitchy is a must!
10- Most women do not deny their femininity in the workplace, but there are those who took the step from secretaries to executives only after trading their long curls for a bob and donning a sharp power suit.
11- Most women fear having kids while pursuing a career, unless they can pay nannies or leave them with their parents, and especially being pregnant when interviewed for a job. They often hear that bonding with a kid is a killer to their ambition. According to most male colleagues, procreating prevents female workers from reaching the top of their field!
12- As women in the workplace, they never know when to stop smiling and when to be more cheerful, thus how they will be judged. In all cases, women are most likely to be perceived as ‘too soft, too rough, and never just right’! A confident woman might be typed as cocky or aloof. A man is a take-charge guy. Sympathy means she’s weak. For men — he’s a sweet guy. Stereotypically masculine or feminine behaviors of people in leadership still have to be deconstructed.
Last but not least, according to one of the interviewed women who remained anonymous, “if you want your professional skills and CV to be your ticket for a salary raise, forget about it; in most cases, you either need an external ‘wasta’, or … you open your legs!”
The “Opening legs” criterion is definitely to be linked with sexual discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace. A vast majority of women in this research have experienced some form of gender harassment, which includes offensive sexist remarks or being told that they could not do their job properly due to their sex, or, the most severe form of harassment, in which women are promised promotion or better treatment if they are ‘sexually cooperative’. In Arabic Lebanese, it is called ‘ftahe ejreyke’ (open your legs)!
Even if I fight for human’s rights, including freedom of thought and expression, I must admit that adopting the ‘ftahe ejreyke’ practice while pursuing one’s carrier is reinforcing the patriarchal system, thus not liberating women from oppression and discrimination. Are there alternative practices? Yes!! Develop a realistic exit plan – heading to a less scorched pasture in order to keep the sense of self largely intact; or, stand up and fight for your rights by starting to build a network of colleagues and advisors as part of an overall sphere of influence! Assert your power and alter this work/life paradigm. Be part of change, even if it will take time, energy and sacrifice!