When COVID-19 struck Lebanon in early 2020, 32-year-old working mother Marianne Itani was confronted with a new reality: to put her thriving career in the natural beauty industry on pause so she can stay at home and care for her two children, Rajaa and Mohamad, ages two and seven, respectively.
Marianne’s husband, Mahmoud Al Shareef, works as a nurse in one of Lebanon’s health institutions that are leading the COVID-19 response. He was needed on the frontlines more than ever. Marianne could not turn to other relatives for child care support. Marianne’s mother had passed away and her mother-in-law was elderly and sick. As a result, Marianne and Mahmoud briefly entertained the idea of hiring and entrusting a nanny to look after Rajaa and Mohamad while they worked their full-time jobs, but ultimately, they decided against it considering the associated costs as well as the health risks.
Then, one afternoon, Marianne suddenly received a phone call from her manager, the co-founder of Beesline Apitherapy — a Lebanese skincare brand founded in 1993. "I know you’re worried about what you will do with your kids," said her manager. "We decided that you can work from home and stay with your kids. Just stay safe and feel good about yourself."
Marianne immediately felt the weight lifted off her shoulders, describing the news as heaven sent. She had the opportunity to work from home and to work flexible hours, which facilitated the sharing of care responsibilities with Mahmoud as they worked around their individual schedules. "Whenever she wanted to meet, my boss would just send a WhatsApp message," Marianne explained.
Marianne’s challenge is not unique. In fact, it’s one that many working women either have or will encounter at some stage in their life, and unfortunately the COVID-19 pandemic has only increased such challenges. What is unique, however, is Marianne’s flexible work arrangement, especially for the MENA region where women’s participation in the labor force is already at an all-time low. Since 2010 when Marianne joined Beesline, she has significantly advanced in the company. This is in part because the company has a track record of putting its people first. It is a leader in the Lebanese private sector when it comes to gender equality targets and gender parity, including at the managerial level. On how the company is institutionalizing its codes of conduct, Marianne said, "We have the values, we have the mentality, and now we are working on the policies."
Transforming the Narrative: From Challenges to Solutions
To expand opportunities for women like Marianne, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) — together with the World Bank through the Mashreq Gender Facility — partnered with the largest business associations across Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon to create a community in each country called the Women’s Employment Peer-Learning-Platform (PLP), with the goal of recruiting and retaining women in the workforce. This initiative leveraged technology as a tool to facilitate the PLP as the pandemic took over and helped to shift to virtual spaces.
First, the IFC had conducted a survey among member companies of its two partners in Jordan and Lebanon, the Information Technology Association of Jordan (Int@j) and the Chamber of Commerce Industry and Agriculture of Beirut and Mount Lebanon (CCIA-BML). Based on their survey of more than 85 companies in both countries, it became clear that most companies had learning needs around developing and implementing equal opportunity work policies, promoting gender diversity in leadership positions, addressing sexual harassment, and developing and implementing flexible time and work-from-home models.
The survey revealed that some companies were already developing flexible and family-friendly workplace practices. The IFC wanted other companies to learn about the family-friendly workplace practices of these firms and therefore aimed to bring these firms together with the broader business community in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon to facilitate a knowledge exchange and an uptake of good practices on advancing women’s employment.
Our approach: Women’s Employment Peer-Learning-Platform (PLP)
Launched just ahead of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Women’s Employment PLP brings together the largest employers in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon on a regular basis to engage on issues related to gender diversity in the workplace. Nine learning webinars were held across the three countries bringing together roughly 195 companies: 33 companies in Iraq, 90 companies in Jordan, and 72 companies in Lebanon. These webinars addressed a range of topics:
- Workplace Mental Health, Resilience and Wellbeing
- Family Friendly and Flexible Work Policies and the Future of Work
- The Business Case for Women in Non-Conventional Roles
"One of the main lessons I have learned during my six years as a Secretary-General is that partnerships are key to solving complex challenges," said Dr. Salma Nims of the Jordanian National Commission for Women (JNCW). "When working hand-in-hand, we can make the impossible possible and achieve our goals."
Another aim of the PLP is to profile examples of good practices that advance gender equality. In Jordan, three case studies were launched on integrating and retaining more women as employees. One case study showcased how Estarta Solutions, a firm specializing in outsourcing, supports women in non-traditional sectors. Another case study highlighted how UMNIAH, Jordanian mobile network operator, promotes anti-harassment policies in the workplace. And a third case study illustrated how Kawar Group, an investment and operational holding group, fosters family-friendly policies in the workplace.
Hana Nehme, Director of Human Resources at CCIA-BML in Lebanon, said, "As primary partners in this initiative, we find the Peer-Learning-Platform in Lebanon to be an effective tool to engage our member companies at the Beirut Chamber and create a community of private sector actors working together on supporting women’s economic participation in Lebanon."
The Role of Men
While women’s engagement remains critical, we also need action from the men in leadership positions for transformative changes to be made. As part of the PLP, a "Forum for Male Executives" was organized over two sessions in April and May 2021 in Jordan and Lebanon. The Forum focused on the value of diversity, equity and inclusion in business leadership. It explored ways that diverse and inclusive board and senior leadership teams can maximize benefits. The forum brought together 18 CEOs/ male executives with equal representation from Jordan and Lebanon.
Beyond sharing knowledge
In order to inspire the private sector, a company competition, with the aim to support companies with their workforce gender diversity goals, was held in the Women’s Employment PLP in each country. The companies Wakilni in Lebanon and TVET Provider Luminus Education in Jordan won the competition, and thus the IFC and PLP partners are supporting them with an assessment of the gaps between female and male employees. Based on the findings of these assessments, the IFC will work with both companies to devise a company-wide action-plan to close identified gender gaps and help each company reach its gender diversity and inclusion goals.
As the world starts to rebuild from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, our hope is that all stakeholders involved in this process will continue to strengthen their businesses through advancing women’s employment. As Ruba Darwish, Board member of Intaj says and General Manager of BmB Group said, "This PLP partnership is living proof of what we can do together to achieve our goals and supporting women locally and regionally."
This feature story was prepared as part of the Mashreq Gender Facility (MGF). This Facility provides technical assistance to Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to strengthen the enabling environment for women’s economic participation and improve women’s access to economic opportunities. The MGF is a World Bank - IFC initiative in collaboration with the governments of Canada and Norway. It is mainly supported by the Umbrella Facility for Gender Equality (UFGE) with contributions from the governments of Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Latvia, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States, and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.