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Drafting a New Story: Women's Rights in the Middle East

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By Brooke Anderson

Originally published in the Wall Street Journal, February 1 2011.

In Lebanon, as elsewhere, the higher up in management one looks, the fewer women there are. But the country’s recent history of conflict has hindered its development, meaning women face even higher hurdles to success in business. Joumana Bassil Chelala, head of the consumer banking division at Byblos Bank, tells Brooke Anderson why Lebanese companies need more women in senior management positions, and the obstacles that remain.

WSJ:What advice do you give young Lebanese women who want to go into banking or management?

Ms. Chelala:First, they must have in mind a kind of vision. Where do they want to go in their life? Do they want to continue and make a career? A lot of women go to university, get married, have kids and stop working.

In Lebanese culture, it’s good to get married. I encourage everyone I know to have a career. It’s good for a couple, for a man to have a wife who works. It gives them something to talk about, so they can understand each other. It’s important when a woman chooses a husband to find someone who accepts that she works. My husband and father always encouraged me. Women need to be in an environment of positive attitudes.

They need to understand how a work environment works. They need to accept criticism, and they must understand that not everything is beautiful in the beginning. They need to show willingness to go the extra mile. This is for both men and women.

WSJ: What gave you the confidence to pursue an executive position in a bank?

Ms. Chelala:I like what I do, not just for the money. What we do has a lot to do with the development of the country. We’re present in rural areas in Lebanon.

When I started in 1991, I’d come from abroad. I left Lebanon with my family in 1975 [the year Lebanon’s 15-year civil war began], when I was 8 years old. I saw the problems and the killings on TV. I always wanted to come back and help improve the lives of people.

When I started as a teller at a branch in 1991, there was no retail banking in Lebanon. Banks worked as commercial banks only. Byblos started retail banking in 1991. In 1992, I took the responsibility of the marketing department to see if we could create retail products. Today I’m handling the consumer division of all branches.

WSJ:Why do you think so few Lebanese women reach top management positions, despite having attained similar levels of education to men?

Ms. Chelala: Either they don’t want to or they’re not encouraged to work. It’s not easy, especially if you have a family. I got my master’s in marketing while working and having kids. I have a husband that encourages me.

WSJ: Who are your role models?

Ms. Chelala: My father—because he’s a successful businessman [François S. Bassil is chairman of the bank’s board]. I have a challenging and demanding father, and I had to give a lot of my time. I had to prove myself and give results. A lot of people take the easy way, but I love challenges. The more I’m challenged, the more I can give.

WSJ: Did you study abroad? What did that do for you?

Ms. Chelala: I studied business marketing at Northeastern University in Boston, and I did a second undergraduate degree in international business management at the American University of Paris. I did a masters in marketing at ESA [Ecole Superieur des Affairs in Beirut] while working and having kids.

When I lived abroad I saw many cultures. I have an open mind and I’m more inclined to accept differences in others.

WSJ: Why is it important for women to break into male-dominated professions? What can women in top positions bring to Lebanese business, and Lebanese society as a whole?

Ms. Chelala: It’s always good to have a mix in world of both men and women. Women might be a little more emotional or intuitive, and that’s good.

In 2008, Byblos began having women on the management committee of the bank—me and the head of HR. I’m happy to keep on going and show that, if you want, you can make things happen. We put things on the table that men don’t think of.

WSJ: How optimistic are you about women achieving equality in the work force?

Ms. Chelala: Of course it will happen, but it will take time. Women don’t like to advance until they’ve finished what they’ve started. First they make sure it’s well done.

Women have to be willing to sacrifice. Are they willing to give up what they used to have, [like] more time at home? They have to have lived in different situations, not always nested. If you’ve been over-protected, then you’re not ready to face the challenges of life.

You need to have stability in the country and the economy in order for women to feel like they are in a safe environment. Instability affects women, because they feel like they need to be at home taking care of their kids. Instability affects women’s professional progress.

I see a difference between Lebanon and other countries. I don’t think it’s a question of culture. Every five years something happens here. In other countries, the economy affects politics. Here, politics affects the economy.

Write to Brooke Anderson at wsje.weekend@wsj.com

 

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