In the Middle East, where normative and cultural barriers obstruct the advancement of women in the workplace, governments – let alone private actors – fall short of effecting social transformation in the face of staunch societal resistance. As a consequence, women – who represent 51 percent of the population of Lebanon and the world – find themselves socially restricted, economically marginalised and bereaved of equal citizenship rights.
International studies conducted by the World Bank, United Nations and Goldman Sachs show that women are a missed opportunity for increased economic prosperity. Bridging the gap between male and female employment rates can lead to major advancements, boosting GDP by 22 percent in certain cases.
BLC Bank has emerged as a catalyst for change in Lebanon. The bank spearheads social, economic and cultural change through its pioneering Women Empowerment (We) Initiative. The We Initiative is the beginning of a long relationship between the bank and women, and among women themselves. It is a learning process: one the bank has voluntarily embarked upon.
Apart from marketing a wide array of products and services, the initiative advocates a novel approach to doing business that ought to pervade every aspect of business transactions in Lebanon. BLC Bank’s Chairman Maurice Sehnaoui said: “I am very proud of the initiative that aims at empowering women and contributing in the journey of women to enhance their financial performance.
“We, as a bank, employees, agents, investors and society at large, are concerned with providing a fair and healthy environment for enhancing the concept of equality between men and women. Our value proposition to our target audience, being women, is that we recognise, and indeed it should be recognised, that women have high potential equal to that of men, and we are ready to provide them the right opportunities to achieve their ambitions.”
Bringing global standards to MENA
The We Initiative evolved from a set of strategic developments amicable to women. In 2011, BLC Bank became the only bank from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to join the Global Banking Alliance for Women (GBA) – a network of international financial institutions that have dedicated programmes for women – paving the way towards its objective of becoming the reference bank for women.
Sehnaoui said: “The initiative launched by BLC Bank qualifies it to become the financial and banking reference for women in the Middle East after being the first bank in the region to join the Global Banking Alliance and to sign the Women Empowerment Principles and preparing… tools for the inclusion and advancement of women in the business world, based on the strong belief in their vital role in developing the economy.”
BLC Bank’s GBA membership gave it access to a seemingly infinite source of best practices on a global scale. By exchanging experiences, networking, scrutinising possibilities for further cooperation and planning ahead with professionals in the field, the bank became a forerunner in the attempt to level the regional playing field and catapult MENA society to international standards.
BLC Bank, alongside the International Financial Corporation’s advisory services team, invested much effort in market research to comprehend the needs of women-owned small- and medium-sized businesses and test new product concepts. Adopting a strategic in-house approach, the bank aims to become the employer of choice for women, with an equitable gender distribution of senior management and overall staff by 2020.
Enterprise and motherhood
BLC was the first bank in the MENA region to commit to the UN Women/UN Global Compact Women’s Empowerment Principles: a set of seven principles for business, offering guidance on how to empower women in the workplace, marketplace and community. What distinguishes the bank from its counterparts is that staff across all echelons work to create a fair working environment, promote gender equality and foster a merit-based environment free from gender preferences.
BLC Bank was also a pioneer in the MENA region of the women’s unit. The women’s unit was not created simply to respond to queries but to provide high-quality assistance to women in any phase of the business cycle. Whether approached by women requesting procedural information or those inspired to start a business from scratch, the women’s unit extends a hand in business development, financial advice, marketing and communications, management and business growth.
The We Initiative markets a host of financial and non-financial products and services designed to integrate women into the economy. It targets all women, be they mothers, employees, professionals or entrepreneurs, seeking to find solutions to their challenges and concerns. As mothers, Lebanese women were prevented by law from opening an account for their children without the consent of the legal guardian: the father.
In 2009, the Association of Banks in Lebanon (ABL) proposed a solution to allow mothers to open fiduciary accounts for their children. BLC Bank was among the first banks to adopt the ABL circular and launch the Mother’s Fiduciary Account in 2011. The bank remains keen on expunging impediments hindering growth in the SME sector.
BLC Bank presented the first collateral-free loan to established SMEs and works incessantly to facilitate their access to finance. At the same time, the We Initiative puts forth a host of non-financial services including trainings, educational workshops, networking events and advisory services, aimed at the enhancement of women’s personal and professional lives.
Providing a platform
The We Initiative also presents women with we-initiative.com: a unique and innovative platform allowing users to connect, network, share experiences and interact with the site and other women. Women often find themselves disoriented as to which business to develop or expansion plan to proceed with. In certain cases, they simply require access to ideas to carry out their business planning.
The We Initiative platform caters to women’s needs by displaying articles on a wide range of topics, and sharing information on upcoming events, conferences and job vacancies.
The platform’s experts and mentors dispense invaluable information to women seeking guidance. They counsel on topics ranging from legal affairs, financial, managerial to mediation and others.
The platform was designed with the intended purpose of supporting its visitors, absorbing them into the We culture and empowering them to speak out. We stands for what it embodies. As well empowerment, the We Initiative aspires to represent and acknowledge female entrepreneurs, executives, evolution, experiences, everyday life and excellence.
When push comes to shove, BLC Bank exerts the necessary muscle to translate its ideals and principles into operational concepts. The bank launched a series of reforms with the aim of becoming a ‘customer-centric’ bank. Its efforts are focused on identifying the unique mix of customer value components that will help it achieve sustainable customer satisfaction.
What women want
A market research study commissioned by BLC Bank revealed that conscious and unconscious biases were critical factors in determining women’s perception of a bank. The respondents praised banks that treated them with respect and equality but criticised those that did not. One of the study’s most compelling findings was that women cared less about the product and a bank’s features than they did about excellent service and honest, transparent and equal treatment to men.
As a result, the bank reformed its approach by training its employees to eliminate all forms of conscious and unconscious bias in dealing with women forthwith. But turning the table on the antiquated way of doing business in such a short period of time required the bank’s management and staff to show enormous levels of commitment.
The bank worked on equipping its staff with the necessary information and practical tools needed to develop sales and service strategies that met the needs of women. In particular, the reforms focused on meeting the needs of women-owned SMEs. Injecting a novel mind-set to doing business proved challenging at the outset but generated great returns.
Encouraging employees to think outside the box and to develop comprehensive offerings with a focus on women culminated in products and services that fitted women’s lifestyles. Bank management insisted on adopting a hands-on approach in reaching out to clients and assisting them in pursuing their potential. This approach was embodied in financial education and targeted training solutions.
A proactive approach
BLC Bank staff did not wait for women to request their assistance: they went on the lookout for interested clients at road shows and networking events. The bank was aware of the hesitancies surrounding non-banking women. Hence, its road shows spanned various parts of Lebanon and tapped into urban and rural communities.
In the spirit of boosting entrepreneurship, especially among women, the bank launched awards for the Business of the Year and the Woman Entrepreneur of the Year. The bank rewards creativity, proper finances, sustainability and corporate social responsibility. Distributing a $30,000 prize to the winner of each category attested to a genuine interest, on behalf of the bank, in nurturing SMEs.
The selection of BLC Bank by the International Financial Corporation as the SME toolkit partner licensed for Lebanon promises to serve the interests of all SMEs. The toolkit incorporates a detailed programme, including an online platform (www.smetoolkit.org), dedicated to providing SMEs with non-financial services. These include computer-based training, online interactive tools, information and educational resources that will enable them to learn and implement sustainable business management practices.
BLC Bank is keen on delivering what matters. As numbers show, women matter and they matter a lot. Ostracising 51 percent of Lebanese society would generate dire socio-economic consequences. With this spirit upheld, the bank approached the predicament and, by conceiving the We Initiative, rushed to simultaneously change the community and economy.
The We Initiative speaks to the countless new realities which face the MENA region, such as the understanding that private actors can change society by changing the conceptions which previously constituted the order of business. If there existed any specific cultural obstacles to the advancement of women, moulding a new reality was made possible through BLC Bank’s consistent efforts. The bank introduces no product into the initiative that is not extended to any other client: its aim is to increase the number of banking and economically active women through the We Initiative.