BEIRUT: Thirty years ago, when Hilal Khashan was applying for jobs he found a position that perfectly matched his qualifications. But when he got to the interview, he realized there was an unwritten requirement that he couldn’t fulfill: his religion.
“They said they wanted someone from the ‘geographic area of Kesrouan,’” says Khashan, who lives in Sidon. “That’s when I realized they were looking for a Maronite Christian.”
Now a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, Kashan says he doesn’t think Lebanon has changed much since 1984 in terms of ensuring equal opportunities for all sects and genders during the employment process. “I later learned to look for certain cues,” he says with a sigh.
Although many other countries with a similar level of education have laws in place to protect women and minorities from such discrimination, Lebanon – along with the rest of the Middle East – does not, and continues to allow candidates to be openly hired according to gender, age and, more implicitly, sect.
The closest thing Lebanon has to legislation that prevents job discrimination is a draft law protecting identity privacy that has been awaiting further action for seven years. Meanwhile, in the workplace, the practice is so commonplace that few feel able to question it, with nearly all job search websites carrying some listings that specify “male” and “female” openings. Yet some worry that the practice is putting all qualified Lebanese job seekers – including men – at a disadvantage.
“Based on my experience working with students at LAU [Lebanese American University] applying for internships, it has been really eye-opening,” says Dima Dabbous Sensenig, assistant professor of communication at LAU.
“When a business said they wanted to hire a woman, women would come back saying they realized that the employer just wanted to surround himself with young women and that they could face sexual harassment. And men would be angry because they didn’t have a chance at the position.”
But for those whose job it is to help graduates get into the world of work, having gender listed in the job description is just a matter of necessity.
“Some vacancies need males,” says Layal Nehme Matar, a placement officer at Notre Dame University in Louaize branch. “It’s not a matter of discrimination.”
She points to employers that request men for largely outdoor work such as civil engineering, or others that prefer their companies’ marketing staff to be female, which she suggests may be because of women’s perceived communication and organizational skills. She dismisses the notion that managers prefer to have female secretaries so they can be around young attractive women.
“I have an ad in front of me for a position of executive secretary and they need a female,” says Matar, pointing to the NDU’s job site on her computer. “I don’t ask them to go into detail.”
But Matar admits that part of the reason people ask for women may be that they are often willing to work at lower salaries than men for the same work. She emphasizes that she does not specify a particular gender when she hires people, and admits that, in general, “it would be better not to ask.”
On the American University of Beirut’s job site for alumni and students, one of their March listings is for a customer service position in Shoueifat that is “female only for logistic reasons.” The advert does not explain why a woman would be needed for such a position. Age can be a requirement too, with a Middle East Airlines listing for an in-flight cabin crew asking for a maximum age of 27.
Arguably the most harmful discrimination takes place behind closed doors.
A personal email from a CEO to a job recruitment agency seen by The Daily Star said the company was looking for an employee who “should live in Dahiyeh and be Shiite.”
For Noor, 25, the issue was made clear to her when she applied for an internship at a five-star hotel in Beirut. The second-year food science student from AUB arranged an interview over the phone, but when she turned up she was told, “If I’d known you wore a hijab I would have told you not to bother showing up.”
“My position was in the kitchen, I wasn’t going to be dealing with customers,” Noor says. “That was my first job interview experience – I didn’t even get to sit down.”
It’s an indication of how deep the problem goes, and how upfront some people will be about it.
“Job discrimination is very prevalent in Lebanon, but it’s not something we can fight as recruiters. If we don’t meet the requirements of the client, then we don’t get paid,” says one exasperated recruiter, asking not to be identified.
As a tiny country with a high rate of education, Lebanon has an unusually competitive job market, one that is marked by a postwar legacy of sectarianism and a reliance on wasta (using connections and nepotism to get ahead). All of this leaves many well-qualified applicants frustrated and jobless, but instead of trying to change the system, many simply move abroad for a fairer shot at finding work.
A 2009 study conducted by AUB of recent alumni from four Lebanese universities found that the No. 1 reason they left the country was for “a better job environment.”
“Even if you make it to a company, you can have the son of the owner being parachuted into a position above you,” says Jad Chaaban, an assistant professor of economics at AUB who helped conduct the survey.
He says the public sector is the biggest culprit in terms of employment discrimination, followed by small family businesses. The best equal opportunity employers are multinational companies, non-governmental organizations, he says, and increasingly Lebanon’s nascent IT sector, which is seeing young people of all backgrounds creating startups and working to hire the best talent regardless of background.
For now, even those who would like to see a change know that it will take a long time to alter social norms that go much deeper than job sites.
“We are a product of our culture,” Khashan says. “Change is very slow. In times of war and economic recession, there can be regression. I’m very pessimistic.”