Congratulations, you graduated! Now what? Uncovering the high education vs. low employment paradox of women in Lebanon

Both male and female graduates are eager to enter the workforce and to turn their academic careers into gainful employment. However, the barriers to landing that first job and then maintaining gainful employment are different for women, and two OSB professors are investigating reasons behind those circumstances. 

Although there have been efforts by the government, international non-governmental organizations, and society in general to reduce the gender gap, Lebanese women in particular experience difficulties accessing formal employment opportunities. Charlotte Karam and Fida Afiouni, associate professors in organization behavior and human resource management, decided to investigate why educated women either do not enter the paid workforce or leave their jobs once they get married. They tried to capture women's personal judgments of the legitimacy of engaging (or not) in paid work. That is, the reasons these women give to themselves for why they do not have a career or engage in paid work.    

Their research expertise in studying employee and management behavior, women's careers, and human resource systems in the Arab MENA helped Karam and Afiouni build a multi-level analytic framework to explore the larger national context, the work context in Lebanon, and individual perceptions of the obstacles women face in their daily lives. By analyzing the narratives from a set of Lebanese women, they were able to show how patriarchal structures helped shape each woman's perception of career decisions, opportunities, and limitations.

“We wanted to understand the high education/low employment paradox that we observe in Lebanon. In fact, while 60% of our graduating students are women, Lebanon ranks almost last in female labor force participation globally with only 1 out of 4 women formally working. This is perplexing and warrants thorough investigation," says Afiouni.

In a recently published study, they explain that the results can be captured in one word: “Patriarchy". Patriarchy preserves the dominance of men by propagating traditional gender roles and the numerous associated practices that oppress women and restrict their participation. Experienced at all levels within the society, family, and at work, patriarchy legitimizes the lack of women's engagement in paid work. Karam and Afiouni's findings present different narratives of women from various socioeconomic groups, where the authors consistently heard comments reiterating that society, families, and employers stress how a woman should focus on maintaining her household first and paid work as secondary, if at all. Some statements from the women included “I don't feel that society is supportive of women working. If I say I want to work, they oppose me and say that I should stay home with my children". Women often reported feeling tensions between the need to, at best, simultaneously fulfill the responsibilities at home and at work, with no structural support from husbands or their employers.

“What was surprising and disturbing to us was that the narratives from women belonging to the highest socioeconomic group - women who are the most societally privileged - shared equally harsh stories of their feelings of being trapped and oppressed. They described the simultaneous pressures to take care of the house, support the husband's career, and maintain very strict standards of femininity and strict standards of societal engagements tied to being the “good wife, daughter, and mother," explains Karam. 

Karam and Afiouni's analysis suggests a common solution among participants, where the women resolved the pressures and tensions by not pursuing a career and instead prioritized household and care responsibilities. One woman commented that “when working became a major reason for the problems between my husband and me, I had to quit and stay at home. This was really hard for me. I studied a lot to get my degree, and at the end, I had to leave all these efforts behind and walk away."

The researchers stress that without multi-level structural change efforts, women are left with the failing task of acting alone. Even if one is ready to work and family and community provide their support, women need to be able to have positive experiences outside the home. Those positive experiences are dependent on state and private sector structures, as well as organizational policies to support and govern equitable and safe workplaces. The results of this research highlight a number of key practical areas that can be targeted to create more equitable opportunities to engage in paid work. These include building more supportive legal and regulatory frameworks to increase women's access to work, freedom and control over self, building organizational, state, and public structures that support working couples' shared responsibilities so that these burdens do not fall on the woman alone, developing social media campaigns and school curricula to change attitudes around the subordination of women, providing women with access to business networks, and creating zero-tolerance policies against gender discrimination and harassment in workplaces and in public spaces.