Career 05 December 2016
I'm 5’8 and 160 pounds, with 38-29-40 proportions. There are days when I succumb to those cliched ideologies: “The skinnier you are, the more you’re worth.” But these ideas are disruptive to the human spirit, and they are reductive to your time on earth. So I like pizza and wine. Who cares? Apparently, my workplace.
It doesn’t matter how good you may feel about your body sometimes. Because, like a snake, body policing and shaming sneaks up and twists its way into our lives. If I wear a pencil skirt to work, that means I’ll have to expose 40 inches of hips — oh, the audacity! — to my coworkers. God forbid they see the shape of a woman. And god forbid I assault them with all these shapes!
All sarcasm aside, women who are considered “attractive” or women whose bodies show any semblance of shape inspires insidious notions of vulgarity.
When Patrice Brown, a “curvy” paraprofessional in an Atlanta school, wore form-fitting clothes to work, she was reprimanded by the school system. And by form-fitting, they meant a dress that fits her form. Brown hadn’t behaved in an improper way; she was victim to the scrutiny and sexualization of our bodies.
Not to mention the dental assistant by the name of Melissa Nelson was fired by her boss because she was "too good-looking". The dentist feared she would tempt him away from his marriage. This happened in 2013, though it’s puritanical stench reeks of yesteryear's.
One BBC piece reported that women considered “attractive” at work often face discrimination by their colleagues. They may even be prevented from advancing, as they are considered distracting or incompetent.
We can only imagine what our own bosses and colleagues are thinking as we dare to show up at work with a body and a face.
News alert: All humans have bodies and faces. Only some humans are penalized for it.
As if we weren’t force-fed enough body shame on a daily basis, we have to be careful to be too human. But when your career is at risk because you dare to live in a body, there’s a real problem.
There seems to be two issues at the core.
The first — yet secondary — issue in the clothing itself, which is often not made to compliment various body types. With the average retailer not selling well-made, price-jacked plus-size clothing (67% of women are plus-size, which starts at size 10 or 12 in stores), it’s hard for women to find something that fits well, is aesthetically pleasing and is office appropriate. No one wants to opt for a lumpy oversized cardigan just because their breasts might offend someone.
According to Michelle Herrera Mulligan, a writer, Latin culture commentator and activist who was also the founding editor for Cosmo for Latinas and part of the founding team for Latina Magazine, “It’s like everything is either skin tight or boxy (and has to be altered a hundred times.) We’re not all six foot tall amazons—the average woman in America is 5” 4. If you have any curves at all, there will be a gap at the waist or it will ride too high, or you can’t button the shirt. The problem is that when you do have curves, office wear is sexualized. It would be nice to see more options for women who actually take fashion and office wear seriously.”
There’s no doubt the fashion industry is ripe for change. Not to mention, it’s missing out on billions of dollars. Bottom line: Fixing fashion would be a win-win for all parties. Even Tim Gunn, host of Project Runway — which is undeniably culpable in terms of peddling ridiculous fashion expectations— has been singing a new tune: “This is a design failure and not a customer issue. There is no reason larger women can’t look just as fabulous as all other women,” Gunn wrote for the Washington Post.
“The key is the harmonious balance of silhouette, proportion and fit, regardless of size or shape. Designs need to be reconceived, not just sized up; it’s a matter of adjusting proportions. The textile changes, every seam changes.”
And while the fashion industry is unarguably accountable for that change, the main issue remains that workplace discrimination still exists. If a woman wears a dress that even remotely hints at her figure, or if she shows up with a “beautiful” face, we assume she is on display in some way. And if another woman doesn’t hint at having a body under her work clothes, she’s somehow in the clear. She’s decent. She’s professional. She’s desexualized, therefore a stable force in the workplace. She doesn’t offend, she doesn’t tempt, she doesn’t distract. She doesn’t really exist.
We expect women to perfectly straddle two worlds — the world in which she is an equal, an employee, a human, a dignified woman. And the world in which she is a sexual entity and a thing to be desired. We haven’t been able to reconcile the two. Consider the obsession over Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits. While Mrs. Clinton has created a sort of buzz around her fabulous outfits, the fact is that we don't expect to see a woman in pants, thus we turn the pantsuit into a symbol. Of feminism. Strength. Democracy. And the same people who (myself included) joined the millions-member Pantsuit Nation group on Facebook are likely to be those feminists who want clothing to be a non-issue when it comes to female public entities.
So we haven’t gotten past it. We haven’t figured out a way to stop sexualizing women in general, let alone in the office, where we’re supposed to be our most civilized selves. The irony is that while most women can’t prove sexism in the workplace — and thus, live with it to some extent — we are the ones to blame when discriminated against for simply existing.
This systemic sexism has strong, rotten roots and a grip that won’t let go. And merely covering up at work won’t change the issue because if you treat it topically, you can never get to the center of the wound. But then, what is a working woman to do? Take on the issues of men all alone in her office? It isn’t that easy.
It shouldn’t be a radical thing to be alive, but if we have to make it radical, let’s do it together. The answer starts from within. Women must empower one another, respect one another and rise up against the idea of the body being a shameful thing. When we protect and communicate with one another, we can make change. Speak out.
Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.
A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.
The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.
Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")
The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."
This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.
Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.
She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."
Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.
"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei
While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.
Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.
The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."
This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.
Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.