The Arab Institute for Women

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Roundtable Discussion with the Lebanese League for Women in Business (LLWB)

With the support of the United States - Middle East Partnership Initiative (U.S-MEPI), the Arab Institute for Women (AIW) at the Lebanese American University (LAU) is catapulting Lebanon towards further gender equality by implementing a project pertaining to universal parental leave and progressive childcare policies amongst Lebanese working parents. Through developing research and preparing a white economic paper, the AiW focused on the cruciality of parental leave policies within the context of the second objective of the project, “improved parental leave policies in the internal bylaws of private sector companies and NGOs”.

Lebanon’s already trembling economic sector and the impact it is enduring after the outbreak of COVID-19 and the port of Beirut explosion pushes the state on the precipice of economic collapse. Not in the position to be envied for, today’s Lebanon is in dire need of both attenuating and bridging the increasing gender gap that has further limited the capacity for Lebanese women to stand on equal ground with their Lebanese counterparts: the men. Contrary to the popular belief that it is not a primary issue to address, Jennifer Skulte, the director of title IX at LAU and a main contributor to the project, argues that the current state of affairs are tremendously affecting women and it is rather the best time to showcase support for both Lebanese women and LAU’s employees. Indeed, Skulte’s self-proclaimed inner desire to witness a change, especially at this crucial time, manifested in the internal implementation of the project at LAU, where the HR office and both former and current presidents – Joseph Jabbra and Michel Muawwad, respectively – have proven to be helpful.

There is no question that Lebanese women at this moment lack the wherewithal to bounce back from the ills that the Lebanese system – advertently or inadvertently – had bestowed upon them, and thus it is within the purview of AIW to aim at aiding these women. In fact, by studying the way of managing to navigate between their professional and personal lives during the lockdown, Jana Mourad, the research specialist at AIW, collaborated with Skulte to understand women’s experiences during said lockdown of spring 2020. It was found that employers expected the same amount of effort and energy to be devoted to the workload as if the country’s situation remained the same. Additionally, women had borne an unequal burden of unpaid work, especially since they were preoccupied with an additional variety of tasks relating to both elderly and child care, placing them at a disadvantage opposite their male counterparts. It would, therefore, be ill-advised to leave women on their own, especially at this time, without showcasing the least bit of support as they embark on a journey of amassing more gender justice. 

Again, the project’s aim is to implement Family-Friendly Workplace Policies (FFWP) to aid employees with family commitments in balancing between their personal and professional lives. It is undoubtedly a task that is easier said than done when applied across the board, which is why AIW is wise enough to collaborate with LAU’s esteemed economics professor, Ali Fakih, to ensure that all variables are well studied and considered. Initially, the primary hurdles that might impede the progress of implementing such a project in a variety of institutions are, according to Dr. Fakih, the implicit and explicit costs. Whether it be the pressures of introducing family-friendly practices in the workplaces, the changes in the labor supply of women, or even the greater sharing of household non-labor market work across parents, Dr. Fakih did not shy away from sharing what the status quo entails and how it could be bypassed. What is worth noting, however, is that he benefits of implementing FFWP far outweigh choosing not to adhere to these policies. Dr. Fakih believes that such implementation would draw more females to an already-unequal Lebanese labor market, where more gender quality would be produced, and women would be part of a newfound workers’ safety net. He believed that for firms and companies to be swayed into implementing FFWP, some external motivation is necessary to advance this cause, where he suggested that tax subsidies and exemptions, social security funds and direct financing could be considered.

In a nutshell, this mission to propel Lebanon towards greater gender equality requires much to be done to conquer the obsolete policies and the not-so-inclusive practices that privilege the majority of men over women. This “equality for all project”, according to Maryam Sfeir, the director of AIW, entails overcoming the different challenges in the workplace, with a particular focus on parental leave. Indeed, with the right implementation of such a project, Lebanon will be able to score another point in its journey of advancing gender equality in a troublesome community that is facing a myriad of issues. This is the time when AIW would be put to the test to showcase the extent to which it would be able to further its mission. Yet, without a doubt, it has proven to be uniquely available till this day. The fight for gender equality in Lebanon is far from over, and this is merely the beginning of a potentially prosperous, more inclusive Lebanon.