BEIRUT: Turn on Lebanese television, open a newspaper or news website and you can be sure of one thing: It won’t be long before you see a man in a suit, whether he’s talking about politics, the economy, or just the weather.
But in among them are many Lebanese women, excelling in their careers, often against the expectations of those around them. On the occasion of International Women’s Day, The Daily Star talked to three women who have worked their way to the top of their professions.
“I was 100 percent aware of the male dominance in politics when I went in,” says Ghinwa Jalloul, a former Beirut MP, of her experience running for office in the 2000 elections. “Beirut had never been represented by a woman and that made it a bigger challenge for me.”
Running on Rafik Hariri’s list against then-Prime Minister Salim Hoss, Jalloul faced down critics who said she was a token candidate.
“People used to say ‘you’re put there to lose so they can say at least a woman has tried,’” she says. “But while they were discussing this in interviews, I was out seeing the people and telling them why they should vote for me.” She won the election and went on to be an MP for nine years.
For Mayada Baydas, the executive director of EMKAN, a company that provides microfinance loans, developing her career outside the country, in the West and developing countries, allowed her to bypass many of the constraints she sees other professional women face in Lebanon.
“Women don’t predominate boards, they don’t predominate management positions,” she says. “I came back to Lebanon being an executive ... so I did not face what the working women of Lebanon who develop for maybe 10 years in Lebanon do face.”
She sees women struggling against a reluctance on the part of companies to invest in their professional development. “They feel that women have reached their top plateau, and women feel that they will not get supported further for higher managerial jobs because of certain biases in the minds of executive management,” she says.
Both Baydas and Jalloul agree that the country is far from lacking in female talent.
“We have a caliber of highly educated women,” says Jalloul. “When they are put to the competition they are better than many men.”
The question then is why women are underrepresented across sectors in Lebanon. Baydas also believes part of the problem is what women expect for their own lives. “I think if we go into the female group we see, to some degree, self-selection by women and perhaps some cultural trends and elements that do not truly present incentives or even a lot of support for women to pursue their education through higher degrees and careers.
“I think women make this decision either along the way at one point of their education or at the point where they choose to pursue a career, or to pursue, you know, making a family or a home,” she says.
She attributes her family’s commitment to her education in part to their Palestinian background.
“My late dad used to say ‘education is your weapon,’” she says. “My aunts were MDs and engineers and so on, so it is part of the family culture that education is very important. Not to say it’s not for many Lebanese, but the female group tends to be a little sheltered sometimes. So it is perhaps favored that a young woman may go and get married rather than pursuing a career.”
For Gretta Taslakian, an Olympic-level sprinter who won two gold medals for Lebanon in the 2007 Pan Arab Games in Egypt, having female role models and hearing the experience of fellow women in the field is vital to her success.
“I do have close female athlete friends who are actually very big in the field, including Jamaican [Shelly Ann-Fraser] who won the Beijing 100 meters in 2008,” she says. “We are very close ... this is an amazing push for me. It’s important to have other strong women around me. It’s important to gain experience from them.”
Promoting female sports role models in the media is important, she says, to encourage other girls to enter the field.
“Girls need an extra push. If we go deep, women in Lebanon, many would be happy to see someone like me,” she says. Those role models are lacking, she says, partly because the media is not interested in women’s sports.
“If you look at a male Lebanese basketball match you see they are everywhere on the TV, radio, newspapers, everybody talks about it although they never competed in [major] games,” Taslakian says. “I’ve competed in so many things, but my portfolio is nothing compared to theirs.”
Taking on the expectations of society and the professional peers often means going the extra mile. “I visited almost every house in Beirut [when I was running], telling them why I wanted to be an MP,” says Jalloul. “You have to explain more. They wouldn’t ask a man ‘why do you want to be an MP, they take him for granted. But for me it was ‘why do you want to become an MP?’”
Once in Parliament, she continued to face scrutiny from some MPs who were vocal about their doubts of having a woman parliamentarian. “When I knew about them I used to go and meet with them,” she says. “I would ask them ‘what’s your problem?’”
For all three women, family support has also been key to their success, particularly, in Jalloul and Baydas’ case, when it comes to balancing motherhood with their own career development.
“It’s a really big challenge to balance that and feel happy within yourself,” says Jalloul. “I wouldn’t have went through that without my family.”
Baydas agrees that without the full support of her family, particularly the help from her mother when it came to child care, she would not have been able to have the career she has had.
“It’s about being able to secure what you need to on the personal front,” she says. “If my partner had not supported my pursuing all of this it may have been difficult and it may have been a choice I would have had to make.”