There are obviously a number of issues to be resolved regarding the rights of Lebanese women, such as their right to give their children the Lebanese nationality, their right for a fair representation in the political process, and other such important issues. But this is not what I wish to discuss in this article. What I wish to discuss is, actually, some of the unheralded achievements of Lebanese women in many areas of development, in particular in the areas of education and the work force. These successes remain not widely understood, nor fully appreciated. The reason, I believe, is not the lack of information, statistical or otherwise, but because of a persistent misinterpretation of available information. Here are some examples.
Many writers point out that illiteracy among Lebanese women (around 8 percent) is twice as high as among men, and that this indicates a social bias against women. While the statistics may be correct, their interpretation is misleading. This gender gap in overall illiteracy rates reflects actually an even greater gap in favor of men among older people, but it describes, partly at least, a past situation. It does not apply to the younger population. Among the young (15-24 years), for example, illiteracy is virtually non-existent for both sexes. Therefore, as the older generation is replaced by the new one, illiteracy will naturally disappear among the population as a whole, men and women. This process has been going on for some time. Overall illiteracy rate before the Civil War was 25 percent for women and 10 percent for men.
Not only do young Lebanese girls enjoy a near-complete literacy as Lebanese boys, their enrollment rates at intermediate, secondary and university levels in Lebanon now surpass that of boys. Almost 60 percent of persons graduating from universities in Lebanon in the past couple of years were women.
The same thing is true of the participation of Lebanese women in the work force. It is often claimed that women are not entering the labor force in sufficiently large numbers. The economic activity rate of women in Lebanon increased only from 17 percent in 1990 to 25 percent in 2015, a very modest advance in 15 years. But here again, the statistics are valid but the interpretation is not. The main reason for the slow growth in the participation of Lebanese women in the labor force is that the young among them are entering educational institutions in much greater numbers than before. Indeed, for the 15-19 age group, participation in the labor force has actually diminished, not increased, during this period, because more girls are opting to go to schools and universities at this age than joining the work force. In return, among the post-university age group 25-29 years, participation in the labor force actually jumped from 26 to 44 percent in the same period, a very healthy increase. What this means, is that, as the entry into the school system approaches saturation, the rise in economic participation of women will accelerate substantially and naturally. There are also an increasing number of Lebanese women working abroad, mostly in the Gulf countries, who are not included in these statistics.
We often hear that the average salary of women is, nationally, lower than that of men. This “gender pay gap” exists, of course, in most countries in the world, including the most advanced, and has been presumed by some researchers to reflect a “gender pay bias” and the existence of a “glass ceiling” that confronts women in their career advancement. The “gender pay gap” in Lebanon is significantly wider than it is in Western Europe or North America.
But does this gap really reflect bias against women in the labor market? On the basis of extensive research that has been undertaken on the subject around the world, but meagerly in Lebanon, the answer is: most probably not. First, as in most countries, men’s work is concentrated in fields that have, generally, higher remuneration. To eliminate this structural consideration, let us look at a specific field, say, health. Here too, the difference, while less than in the country as a whole, is still significant. The reason, very succinctly, is that most nurses are women and most doctors are men. When only doctors are considered, the gap narrows again but remains nevertheless. Looking at the situation in one major hospital, it became clear that one of the basic reasons for the gender pay gap among medical doctors was the fact that male doctors had, on average, much more seniority, up to 30 years at times, than female doctors, due to the relatively recent entry of women into the medical profession.
Will the “gender pay gap” disappear completely if all the above factors are taken into account, that is, if women enjoyed the same occupational structure as men and the same seniority? Almost, but not totally, judging from the fact that some gap still exists in the developed countries where this condition is largely satisfied. An article in the New York Times, published last May, entitled “The major cause of the gender pay gap: Motherhood” explains that, on the basis of two recent studies in the United States, motherhood, is the culprit. It causes some women doctors to interrupt their careers because of pregnancy and post-pregnancy period, or forgo job opportunities as they follow their husbands to new places, or even because of employers anticipating these possibilities. At any rate, the remaining gap is relatively small.
In Lebanon studies on the subject are scarce. The two official studies show that the overall “gender pay gap” fell from 27 percent in 1997 to 6 percent in 2007.
The main reason for the narrowing of the “gender pay gap” in Lebanon has been the rush of women into the higher paid labor category officially designated as “specialists,” which includes doctors, pharmacists, engineers, lawyers, university professors and others. Official statistics indicate that, while only 3 percent of working women were classified in this category in 1996, in 2009 some 26 percent of working women had moved into this category and this rate may have actually reached the 30 per cent mark presently, according to credible projections. Actually, the number of women in this category has recently surpassed the number of men, in spite of the fact that the participation of men in the labor force as a whole is some three times that of women.
The judiciary field offers a good example of how Lebanese women are taking charge in some fields traditionally the preserve of men. In 2005 only 30 percent of judges were women. In 2015, 42 percent were women. Considering that more men judges will retire in the near future than women judges because of seniority, and that the number of women in the Institute of Judicial Studies is almost three time the number of men, it is expected that the number of women judges will very soon exceed the number of men.
The United Nations and a number of international institutions often classify women among the vulnerable groups in society, together with children, the elderly and the displaced. Does this apply to Lebanese women? You be the judge.
Riad Tabbarah is the author of the book “Lebanon: Development and Human Problems by the Numbers,” (in Arabic) from which some of the information for this article is taken.