In the words of Joëlle Bou Abboud: “In my work and personal life, I have always been a champion for women’s rights”
Joëlle Bou Abboud is a lawyer and the Group General Counsel of HOLDAL Group which is a third generation family business born in Lebanon working in retail, distribution, manufacturing and supply chain in beauty, personal and household care, healthcare, lifestyle and luxury. She also serves as the UN Sustainable Development Goal 5 (SDG5) champion in the company and is a key player in empowering women. After attending a UN Women-hosted workshop on the Anti-Sexual Harassment Law 205 and its implementation in the workplace, she has contributed to realign and develop measures and guidance to prevent and address workplace sexual harassment in her company.
“With over 600 employees (50% men and 50% women) – I take pride in being the voice of women in the company. In my work and personal life, I have always been a champion for women’s rights. So, when I was asked by the management to become the company’s UN Sustainable Development Goal 5 (SDG 5- Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls) champion in 2019, I was enthralled by the opportunity, and I was ready to dedicate myself to the mission to advance women’s empowerment and gender equality.
The company is working on rolling out the SDGs to build a more sustainable and inclusive workplace. We have six voluntary SDG champions who established SDG taskforces made up of 55 women and 45 men across the office to work on SDGs 3, 4, 5, 12, 17. We work closely together to coordinate these efforts.
Under the SDG 5 taskforce, I have mobilized 3 female and 1 male taskforce members, as well as the managers of each of the company’s departments to advance women’s equal and inclusive participation and promote their safety and protection in the workplace.
We ensure that inclusive policies which promote women’s rights and protection are put into place. Practically, we ensure that women have equal opportunities from the initial interview stages to gaining promotions in the company, even empowering them to take on leadership positions which are often perceived as "men's jobs" (i.e. manufacturing and supply chain managers).
In 2019, we began conducting sessions on anti-sexual harassment in the workplace. Separately, women and men identified and defined sexual harassment and discussed their own experiences, and then participated in joint discussions. These sessions which gathered over 100 employees, made us realise that many sexual harassment cases were not perceived as such, which pushed us to hold more awareness sessions. So far, we continue with the sessions and the training in different departments paving the way to a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment.
Employees, both women and men thanked me for raising awareness on the subject, – I am convinced this will make an extraordinary difference in both women's and men's work life, and in their personal and social lives. Awareness can lead to change in the culturally deep root causes of these behaviours, which are often constructed around the social norms and traditions we are brought up with and are permissive towards sexual harassment.
We then translated these efforts into our policies. After attending a series of workshops on law No. 205, we were able to develop and enhance our policies to ensure the protection of women against harassment in the workplace. I was also involved, with the HOLDAL Group, in lobbying for the new law before it was passed. These workshops were led by the Center for Inclusive Business and Leadership for Women (CIBL for Women), in partnership with the Lebanese NGO Seeds for Legal Initiatives (SEEDS), the Lebanese League for Women in Business (LLWB), ABAAD and UN Women.
I am aware of the persistent barriers women face because I have been held back in life, constrained by social norms and have been sexually harassed. However, I have been supported to stand up and speak out, through my own journey and with the support of other women and men, notably my husband – now I want to do the same for other women and girls, including my own daughter.
Before holding the awareness sessions, and to my knowledge, no women had ever reported sexual harassment cases in our company. Afterwards, three women came forward– this is a big step for all women in the company. Now, women know where to go, what to do and that the company will have their back. More men are also advocating for women’s rights and empowerment in the company. Men must be engaged as agents of change for the realization of women’s empowerment.
Our efforts must go on, to make sure that women’s issues and safety are met. As we continue conducting awareness raising sessions, not only within HOLDAL, but also amongst other companies nationally and internationally, we have also launched a video series to shed light on this issue.
I tell other companies that we need to put competition aside and make a collective commitment to advancing women’s empowerment and gender equality. I tell women you are entitled to attain your full rights, to feel safe and protected, and most importantly to feel empowered in your work. Don’t let the societal gender prejudices hold you back.”
This work was developed and launched as part of the project “Special Measures for Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse - Advocacy for Anti-Sexual Harassment Legislation in Lebanon.” It aims at building employer-focused initiatives to strengthen the commitment and implementation of the new 205 Anti-Sexual Harassment Law in Lebanon. The workshop was held in partnership with SEEDS for Legal Initiatives,(a Lebanese NGO that works with marginalized groups to raise awareness on legal rights and advocate for legal reform), the Lebanese League for Women in Business (LLWB), a non-profit association that supports women in business and women entrepreneurs, NGO ABAAD, and the Center for Inclusive Business and Leadership for Women (CIBL for Women) at the Suliman S. Olayan School of Business in the American University of Beirut and UN Women, with the generous support of the Governments of Canada and Sweden. HOLDAL group has also signed the Women's Empowerment Principles (WEPs), a set of Principles offering guidance to business on how to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment in the workplace, marketplace and community.