Lebanese women and the dynamics of change

Rubina Abu Zeinab–Chahine| The Daily Star

Women are often dynamic leaders of change, and nowadays they are becoming more noticed for their extraordinary achievements and the vital roles they are playing on different levels.

However, all over the world women are underrepresented in decision-making positions, mainly in politics, even though the situation varies among countries. The causes for underrepresentation of women in decision-making positions are multiple and complex. Accordingly, a comprehensive approach is needed to tackle this hurdle, which stems mainly from traditional gender roles, lack of support for women in balanced care responsibilities and the prevailing political culture.

As per data compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union in December 2016, 23 percent is the global percentage of women parliamentarians in national parliaments compared to 11 percent in 1995. While women have achieved progress in many areas, if gender parity in governments, Parliaments or peace tables will maintain its current pace, it will not become a reality before the next century.

Ensuring gender parity in decision-making and equal representation in positions of power and leadership are strategic priorities for global development. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the ninth male U.N. chief, appointed three women in top positions pushing for his gender parity agenda.

He said, “These appointments are the foundation of my team, which I will continue to build, respecting my pledges on gender parity and geographic diversity.”

He appointed Amina Mohammed from Nigeria as U.N. deputy secretary, a post established as part of the organization’s reform in 1997, to help manage secretariat operations, ensure coherence of programs and evaluate the organization’s leadership in economic and social scopes.

Ms. Mohammed, who has been serving as an environment minister in her country, was also an adviser for post-2015 development planning. The other two appointees are the Brazilian diplomat Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti as Chef de Cabinet and Kang Kyung-wha from South Korea as a special adviser on policy, a newly created post. The three highly qualified women among others in key decision-making positions will support the secretary-general in breaking the glass ceiling toward more gender equity and equality.

On the national level, Lebanese women won the right to vote and stand for elections in the ’50’s. University doors were opened to Lebanese women prior to many other countries in the region. Beirut, which was the first media capital in the Arab region, provided opportunities for women to enter a tendentiously male-dominant field at that time.

However, Lebanese women remain largely underrepresented in politics and decision-making positions at both national and local levels.

Lately, Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his new Cabinet put the issue of women high on the political agenda. The formation of the first Women Affairs Ministry in Lebanon is a positive initiative representing the interests, challenges and opportunities of women in our society and a first step toward gender parity in decision-making. Having a male figure heading the newly established ministry created a platform of critics among the public opinion. However, it is the approach that counts and still it will be considered a milestone in the history of women in Lebanon.

Continuing his support to this cause, Hariri, who regretted the underrepresentation of women in political life, recently declared that he would not participate in elections that do not support women representation. He promised to include a women’s quota in the upcoming elections in support of promoting women’s political role that will drive a dramatic number of women leaders in Lebanon as it had in many countries.

The question to be raised is how can the newly established Women Affairs Ministry support women to achieve higher political and senior decision-making posts in both public and private sectors? Discussions should take place along its mandate, mission, vision, objectives and targets. The crosscutting theme “Gender” should be illustrated in a multidisciplinary approach where gender and women issues are part of every topic and each ministry in Lebanon.

“One number is better than thousand words.” From here, work should start by focusing on collecting, analyzing and disseminating data, trends and information. A database on women and men in decision-making that provides up-to-date figures in politics, public administrations, judiciary, business, media and finance must be necessarily developed, in addition to reviewing trends of women’s progress over the last two decades, searching for the breaking records, good practices and lessons learned.

The Central Administration of Statistics in Lebanon shows women represent 29 percent of the total labor force in Lebanon. Women economic participation has 48 percent concentration in the age interval of 20-29 years old and 51.9 percent concentration into the age interval of 30-39 years old. 78 percent of working women work on a monthly basis and 12.2 percent are self-employed which is half the percentage of man in the same category. There is no available data on women business owners, but 29.7 percent of working women fall under the category of unskilled labor which is more than twice the percentage men in the same category.

Almost 48.1 percent of women are working within organizations (4.9 percent in senior management, 16.1 percent specialist, 14.9 percent mid-level professionals and 12.2 percent administrative employees). Around 42 percent of working women hold university degrees versus 21.6 percent for working men.

Despite the fact that women are significantly underrepresented in the labor market, women represent the majority of the university-educated labor in the market accounting for 50.5 percent of the total.

This reality represented by the available data once completed would help in drawing the present status of women indicating gender gaps and supporting building a national agenda for gender parity in Lebanon. Asking good questions would help point out the problems and expectations and facilitate a better reflection and learning process.

This will also answer critical questions such as: How can women in Lebanon break the glass ceiling of participation, representation and leadership?

Can we develop alternative routes to influence women’s participation in power structures and decision-making? Are we able to identify the factors that enhance or hinder women’s representation and participation? How can we do things better?

Rubina Abu Zeinab–Chahine is executive director Hariri Foundation for Sustainable Human Development.