Working Women and Post-COVID Lebanon
Lebanese women, especially working women, have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic and these simultaneous (and in many ways related and inseparable) crises.
The people of Lebanon were facing a desperate political and economic situation long before the COVID-19 global pandemic hit.
When the first case of coronavirus was discovered in Lebanon in February 2020, the banking system had already been in a fatal spiral for four months. Today, the country is in the throes of hyperinflation – the Lebanese pound has lost 90 percent of its value – and is also facing record-high unemployment, reduced wages, and rock-bottom purchasing power. The economic crisis is considered to be among the three worst in the world since the mid-1800s.
To top it off, in early August 2020 Beirut was the site of the third-largest non-nuclear explosion in history, which killed 217 people and injured more than 700 others. The destruction displaced some 300,000 people and caused billions of dollars in damage across the capital. According to ESCWA, around 82 percent of people in Lebanon live in multidimensional poverty, compared to 42 percent in 2019.
Lebanese women, especially working women, have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic and these simultaneous (and in many ways related and inseparable) crises. Specifically, working women face an increase in unpaid care responsibilities and growing inequalities of opportunity and income.
While Lebanon is considered progressive in many respects compared to other countries in the region, Lebanese women have been overwhelmingly subject to restrictive social norms related to gender roles for generations. Women are expected to juggle their jobs and household responsibilities including cooking and cleaning, and care for their children and the elderly, with little help.
The pandemic and economic crisis have only increased the amount of unpaid care and other household work expected of women in Lebanon. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), 81 percent of Lebanese women reported that their household duties increased during the pandemic, compared to 64 percent of men. The psychological toll on many women has been devastating and, anecdotally, since almost no research is currently being done in the country, it seems that cases of depression among women are rapidly rising.
As mentioned, prior to the pandemic, Lebanon suffered one of the largest overall gender gaps in the world, ranking 132 out of 158 countries in the 2021 World Economic Forum Gender Gap report. The Lebanese labor market is dominated by men, who hold more than three-quarters of all jobs, while women hold just about a quarter of all jobs – one of the lowest rates in the world.
Pandemic-induced layoffs have disproportionately affected women, in part because employers prefer (perhaps out of a misguided sense doing the right thing) to retain men, since they view them as the main breadwinners. In a telling example, when the Lebanese government first announced pandemic lockdowns and school closures, some companies sent their female employees home first to complete their “domestic care duties,” further reinforcing discriminatory gender practices and increasing female unemployment levels after lockdowns.
Income inequality has always been a fact of life in Lebanon – ten percent of the wealthy Lebanese population own 70 percent of total wealth – but it is also significantly gendered. Women face discrimination in taxation and social benefits. For instance, married women pay more income tax than men since they are treated as single and are paid 27 percent less than men in the same position, despite labor laws prohibiting this discriminatory practice.
During the pandemic, income inequality has become even worse for many working women. Some companies decreased the salaries of women more than they did for men. According to one study, women reported that their average income fell during the pandemic from LBP 408,000 (USD23, at current market rates) to LBP 95,000 (USD5) a month, compared to LBP 479,000 (USD27) to LBP 103,000 (USD6) for men. In 2020 alone, 48 percent of women also reported being laid off, compared to 40 percent of men, and 7 percent of women reported that their wages were cut, compared to just 3 percent of men.
The future of working women in Lebanon
Despite the dire state of Lebanon’s government and economy, the public sector should strive to bring as many women as possible back into the post-pandemic workforce. To achieve this, the government must enforce the equal pay law to increase women's economic participation and lift families out of poverty. Ideally, the government should also provide access to affordable, high-quality childcare.
Admittedly, this might be wishful thinking. In the meantime, businesses should take it upon themselves to bring women back into their organizations, and employers should offer women flexibility so they can better manage their work and household expectations.
Even better, following the pandemic, Lebanon’s private and public sectors should coordinate policies and strategies to increase women's economic participation. This would be a good step to rebuilding the foundations of a more equal and equitable society post-pandemic and post-economic crises.
About the Author
Middle East Program
The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Read more
Middle East Women's Initiative
The Middle East Women's Initiative (MEWI) promotes the empowerment of women in the region through an open and inclusive dialogue with women leaders from the Middle East and continuous research. Read more