Asmahan Zein: “Women lack representation at many levels”

Asmahan Zein is a busy and inspiring woman. President of the Lebanese League for Women in Business (LLWB), General Manager of InfoFort and member of the American Chamber of Commerce among others, Asmahan spares no effort to promote Lebanese women rights on the labor market. And the battle is not won. At all.

asmahan zein LLWB
Asmahan Zein: “Illiteracy has seen a significant rise. Before 1975, only 2% of our population were illiterate. According to studies, it’s now 16%. But nobody talks about it.” © ByTheEast.com
ByTheEast: A recent survey (‘Working Women in the Middle East and North Africa’, by Bayt.com and YouGov.com) ranked Lebanon as #1, vis-a-vis women and men working together in the same workplace. Are Lebanese women faring better in comparison to women from other countries in the MENA region?

Asmahan Zein: It’s all relative and differs from country to country. I think we although there is a lot of work being done on this level, we are still far behind many countries with regards to engaging women in the workplace, civil rights, etc. A case to point, 51% of graduates from Lebanese universities are women, with only 23% joining the workforce.

BTE: Why is this?

Zein: There are two main reasons: women do not engage in the workforce due to cultural reasons, or because they are joining studies that are not in demand in the labor market. It is also important to note that most of the universities are not preparing our new generation for the job market.

“Lebanon has a percentage of highly qualified women they are however not given the chance to reach executive positions. Because of cultural reasons and because of men’s ego”

BTE: What can be done to change this mindset in Lebanon? What can an NGO, like yours, do to help bring about this change?

Zein: At the League of Lebanese Women in Business (LLWB), we work on different projects:  One of our projects is Girls Got IT (GGIT) which aims to encourage girls from 10th,11th and 12th grades to enroll in studies within the science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) fields. This initiative is implemented in partnership with UNICEF and the Ministry of Education and Higher Education.

Under GGIT, we conduct one big event in the various Lebanese regions during which we bring entrepreneurs working within the STEAM field, to give young girls students a hands-on experience in this field through training workshops. We have covered all the Lebanese governates since 2016. In 2019, we will have more GGIT events in Chouf and Greater Beirut. Our total number of graduates is almost 3000 girl students.

BTE: Any other projects?

Zein: We have loads of projects in the pipeline! For example, we have many initiatives supporting youth including:

TechWorks: in 2018/19, in partnership with UNICEF and with the financial support of the German embassy, we will extend one of our projects called ‘TechWorks’. This project provides youth between the age group of 18 to 24 who do not have the opportunity to continue their studies, with the skills to design wooden products using technology. The trainings under this project are divided into 3-levels where we teach them how to design on a computer then execute those ideas manually. Through these three levels, we are teaching them a skill that will not only enhance their IT knowledge but also allow them to capitalize on their skills for finding job opportunities.

Women in Data Science (WiDS): Further, we have also partnered with American University of Beirut (AUB) on the Women in Data Science Day conference, which is implemented in collaboration with Stanford University. Through this platform, we bring a group of our GGIT graduates to meet excelling women in data science.

UN-World Food Programme Digital Skills Training: We also have programs for underprivileged communities and refugees funded by the World Food Programme (WFP) through which we give them English and computer skills.

In the same spirit, every year in April, we offer an internship to some of our students in various private sectors where they can value their technology.

On the level of entrepreneurship, and in collaboration with IM Capital and the support of USAID and the World Bank, we have launched the Lebanese Women Angel Fund (LWAF) in 2017, a first of its kind initiative in the MENA region through which investments are made into women-led start-ups. We have already invested in three startups and expect results in the next five years. As you can see, we do our best, and there is a lot to do!

“At a moderate or managerial level, women are paid 30% less, for the same position, in comparison to their male colleagues”

BTE: Are men and women equal when it comes to the labor market?

Zein: Let’s not talk about equality, but rather focus on diversity. Unfortunately, in Lebanon, there is no respect for diversity. You will be surprised to know, although Lebanon has a percentage of highly qualified women they are however not given the chance to reach executive positions nor any position on a board. This is again because of cultural reasons and because of men’s ego.

Men find it strange that we need women in boardrooms. Although socially, men in Lebanon converse with women and respect their capabilities but when it comes to the workplace, they find it strange to work at the same level. There is a big gap in pay too! At a moderate or managerial level, women are paid 30% less, for the same position, in comparison to their male colleagues.

BTE: Yet, Lebanese law says they should get the same wage. Why don’t we see any progress?

Zein: Much of this can be attributed to women themselves. They have internalized social perceptions of gender and are reluctant to go the extra mile asking what they earn, and often enough they are too shy. Most of the time they are afraid to lose their jobs and prefer maintain their given income. Fortunately, this is changing, albeit not as quickly as needed.

BTE: What about their representation in…

Zein: Women lack representation at many levels. They are not well represented in politics, in unions, and other decision-making positions. We have to learn from countries such as Tunisia which succeeded at passing laws that provide women with their rights with regards to inheritance, passing on their citizenship to their children, etc. Women are also sitting in the Parliament and in ministerial cabinets. The Tunisian example can therefore be an inspiring one as we work on advancing women’s participation in Lebanon.

BTE: As an NGO representative, what kind of lobbying can you do in Lebanon? On political players for example?

Zein: We try to stay away from politics and focus on mobilizing the private sector to address gender related issues through internal policies and practices. We believe that this will create the lobbying force needed to make the change.

We have built collaborations with government entities specifically on the Women on Board Initiative, including the Office of the Minister of State for Women’s affairs and the National Commission for Lebanese Women (NCLW).

Our target audience are women. Women working from home, women coming from different industries, women who need funds for their startups… At LLWB, we also have monthly events, in Beirut or in other cities such as Tripoli: we call them ‘Join And Grow’.

During these events, we invite ecosystem players and partners and speakers to share their knowledge with our members. We also hold monthly workshops and trainings addressing the needs of our members in Beirut, North Lebanon and Beqaa. For example, in Beqaa there are many women who run small businesses from home. They generally require training on legal and financial issues, preparing a business plan and a business model, public speaking, etc.

BTE: Is illiteracy still an issue in some regions?

Zein: Yes, and it has seen a significant rise. Before 1975, only 2% of our population were illiterate. According to studies, it’s now 16%. But nobody talks about it, of course. We do lack of statistics and actual figures.

The private sector’s involvement in social issues in Lebanon is minimal and unfortunately most of the CSR projects done exist for public relations purposes. I say it with regret. Involvement of the Lebanese private sector could make a huge difference. We are working on it.

BTE: Do you have to work with other NGOs?

Zein: Actually, this is the way LLWB has been operating over the past four years and we could not have reached our objectives alone. We need to work together to maximize impact. Unfortunately, this spirit is still lacking in Lebanon. I think it is a cultural issue, and it’s a major one.

BTE: Where do you look to find hope?

Zein: To our youth. And I also believe that no change will happen in Lebanon unless NGOs, private sector and the public sector work together to make the change. There is a lot of work to be done on our educational system. Young people have to learn about diversity and equality, and to value working for the country. There is no other way. The Lebanese Civil War took 20 years of our lives, and did we learn anything out of it?