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French Version

Women form new group to break glass ceiling

Organization will also stress workplace rights

An association to boost women's participation in the Lebanese workforce by helping aspiring female entrepreneurs start their own businesses was launched in Beirut Tuesday, with the first installment of a seminar on alternative financing opportunities for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Founded by 12 white-collar professionals from a variety of fields including marketing and communications, law, and information technology, the Lebanese League for Women in Business ( LLWB) will assist educated but unemployed ladies to "Take the Lead and Succeed" as its slogan goes.

The LLWB aims to close the gap between the rising presence of Lebanese women at higher education institutions over the past decade and their comparatively small contribution to the economy, said Najwa Tohme, the association's president and founder of a pharmaceutical distribution company.

"At a time when brain drain is increasing exponentially, we see a market demand for an association to empower women to enter the workforce and drive Lebanon's economic recovery," she said at LLWB's first session at the Gefinor Rotana Hotel Tuesday evening.

The idea was born at a 2005 conference for local businesswomen which drew on statistics from the UNDP Millennium Development Report, Tohme recounted in her opening address.

Half of all university students in Lebanon are women but females account for only 29 percent of total national workforce. Almost one quarter of employed Lebanese women work in white-collar fields such as government, medicine, law, academia, the arts, and business and are generally more educated than their male counterparts, but few have managed to climb to the top of the corporate ladder and occupy senior positions. About 90 percent of bank employees are women, for example, but there are no female bank directors in the country, according to the UNDP report.

The LLWB plans to address the problems at the root of such statistics both practically and ideologically. For a LL100,000 annual membership fee, the association will help women draft business plans, conduct market studies, and gain access to a bank loan to start-up an SME. They will also advocate women's' rights in the workplace, Tohme said.

In the medium term, the goal is to recruit female university students and help them establish businesses when they graduate. Lately Lebanese women are gravitating toward advertising, public relations, "F and B" (food and beverage) and services, said founding member Rima Beydoun, and many potential entrepreneurs want to open their own shops or restaurants.

The LLWB is also targeting women with " empty nest syndrome" for recruitment, Beydoun explained

"A lot of women with grown children, university degrees, and a lot of spare time on their hands want to make themselves useful either for vocational purposes or to contribute financially to their household given the current economic situation," she said.

Women hoping to establish an SME confront the same obstacles facing any aspiring entrepreneur in the current economic climate, plus a host of social constraints, said another founding member, Hanan Saab.

"Obviously getting a loan is difficult, but a lot of women have good ideas and are reluctant to share them. That's why we thought we would create an environment to encourage them," she told The Daily Star.

The well-heeled guests at Tuesday's reception represented only a small, educated - and by all appearances relatively privileged - swathe of the Lebanese population, though women of all ages were present along with a smattering of men. But Saad insists that membership is not limited to college graduates, and the association's ultimate goal is to focus on educational programs and reach out to a broader segment of society.

Marseille,04 11 2007
Redaction
The Daily Star
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