BEIRUT: The challenge of finding and maintaining a balance between one’s work and personal life is often cited as one reason why there aren’t more women in leadership roles.
With marriage no longer a social and economic necessity, a growing number of Lebanese women are entering the workforce, whether by choice or obligation. Thus, many women are finding themselves faced with a difficult choice: career or family?
Karma Ekmekji is professionally known as International Affairs Advisor to PM Saad Hariri and the founder of #Diplowomen.
She is also an involved mother of two young boys, a dedicated daughter, a committed wife, an avid supporter of local brands, and an activist for several causes.
Racking up over 11,000 Instagram followers, her Instagram page features everything: from her pictures greeting the President of France Emamnuel Macron and shaking hands with the Pope at the Vatican, to photos of her family hashtagged #heforshe #family #WorkingMum #MumofTwo #priority, and of course, #DiploWomen.
Ekmekji, whose daily life dispels the theory of mutual exclusivity of work and family life, shared her insights on work-life balance with Naya.
The secret of the “Me Time”
“Me time,” which Ekmekji holds sacred, is a big priority in her daily routine. Many are shocked at her commitment to a workout session every morning.
“I needed to recognize early on that I am healthy for myself and I’m healthy for my family,” Ekmekji told Annahar. “It’s important to have ‘me time.’ I allocate very high value to my health, my mental and physical sanity, and my personal needs.”
“I don’t want to be that person that’s sucked into my career in fear that someone else will take my place at the expense of me,” she explained.
“I give a lot of value to sleep. I’m rude to people if I don’t get my sleep. I do listen to my body. I really do listen to my body,” she added.
Finding a support system and defining one’s priorities
The Public Policy guru shared the extra layer of complexity added to women’s choice, and importance of prioritization.
“When the prime minister went to attend the closing remarks at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon at the Hague, I excused myself for not being able to accompany him as it was my son’s first day of school. He was extremely supportive of me prioritizing my family in this instance,” she said. “Not for a moment did he compare me to a man or make me feel any less than one.”
Ekmekji might have missed an important day at work but, prioritizing her son on his first day of school was paramount.
“As women we make these tough choices. We have that extra layer of complexity in our lives,” Ekmekji told Annahar.
Beyond prioritizing, Ekmekji explained the importance of having mentors that have supported her over the years.
“I think that’s why I have been able to do what I do,” Ekmekji said. “I know that’s rare and I acknowledge that it is. We need more of that mentality entrenched in our day to day, whether it’s in the corporate world or in the public sector.”
New World Order
“The world is moving forward. New Zealand’s Prime Minister breastfed at the United Nations Headquarters,” she said, as she explained that, in-fact, a woman can achieve success in both: family and career.
Ekmekji added that the stereotype that women need to get married should be diminished.
“There are women who don’t want children and are comfortable with that choice. We need to recognize this,” she told Annahar adding, “it goes back to women’s (free) choice. It goes back to this basic fundamental right, this basic fundamental change in reality. It’s their choice and we cannot judge them for it.”
Beyond the life-hacks, Director of the KIP project, a multidisciplinary project aimed at spreading information related to gender and sexuality in Lebanon, and Associate Professor at the American University of Beirut school of Business Charlotte Karam, discussed with Naya some of the challenges facing women’s career development.
Work-Life Balance defined (or not)
Karam told Annahar that the definition of work-life balance is not consistent across the globe.
“What is work-life balance? In the West it means how you balance your work and your nuclear family while developing your profession. However, research has shown that this definition is not consistent across the globe,” she said. “Lebanese (and Arab) women define work-life balance more as a complex web of relationships. A woman who wants to build a career also thinks to navigate relationships in the difficult dynamics of the workplace.”
Public Policy and Infrastructure
The Middle East women’s career paths specialist told Annahar that challenges surrounding the care economy are not limited to women.
“Even if I’m a man and want to take care of my child during the traditional work day, I couldn’t. There are no HR national level policies that go into the responsibility of care-giving,” Karam said. “Most of the companies in Lebanon don’t provide day care, don’t allow breastfeeding, and don’t allocate time in the work day for women that may have to go pick up their kids.”
“Our society is built on the notion that a man builds his career keeping in mind his wife is performing unpaid domestic work at home. Women entering the workforce are threatening the way things have been running forever. That’s why there’s resistance,” she added.
“Women can do it, women can build their career and maintain a family, but the structural support is not there. She (Ekmekji) is an excellent role model that it is in-fact possible,” Karam told Annahar.
Karam expressed that public policy reform is necessary to adapt to the influx of women entering the workforce.
“Moving forward, however, we need more structural support, and policies normalizing having children,” she said. “It’s not abnormal to have children, but we don’t have the policies to reflect this. They (our policies) are not structured to show that care is important.”
Karam and her research team have received a grant to develop an economic indicator that focuses on the Arab Middle East and documents women’s contributions to MENA economies.
Welcome to “Naya,” the newest addition to Annahar’s coverage. This section aims at fortifying Lebanese women’s voices by highlighting their talents, challenges, innovations, and women’s empowerment. We will also be reporting on the world of work, family, style, health, and culture. Naya is devoted to women of all generations — Naya Editor, Sally
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