Sexism in the Middle Eastern workplace
For the past five years, I have run a gender equality advocacy foundation in Yemen that has collaborated with over a dozen Yemeni gender equality projects and advocacy events. Recently, I decided that this experience qualified me to apply for the job of gender equality officer in the Sana’a office of a very well-known international NGO. I believed that the job, and the budget of the NGO on which it draws, would allow me to make change related to issues like gender-based violence and more general gender equity on a larger scale. But ultimately, the experience was an eye-opening one in terms of how embedded gender inequality and sexism are in the Middle Eastern workplace, even in progressive workplaces like International NGOs and even if they try invoke equitable policies.
A few weeks after I applied for the job, a recruiter asked me to come to the Sana’a office to take a written test. On the day of the test, I arrived early, making sure to leave enough time to go through security measures, but ended up waiting an hour and half in a security room with guards along with five other candidates. I quickly noticed that of the candidates, I was the only woman. The advertisement for the job — which, again, focuses on gender equality — clearly stated that female applicants were encouraged to apply. I began to wonder how much the organization truly understood about the fight for gender equality in the Middle East if the candidates they were considering to take on this fight were overwhelmingly male. Or perhaps they weren’t confused at all, and meant to create an illusion of equity in their organization to appease any media criticism and acknowledge the recent “trend” of organizations supporting gender equality.
Nonprofit organizations are supposed to make sure at least 50 percent of employment vacancies are filled by women in accordance with the globally agreed-upon gender equity and equality rules of the U.N., yet this requirement is often sidestepped by employers who employ women in temporary or nonleadership positions: In fact, the majority of the time, these positions are held by women and only a handful make it to the top. Even when women do achieve these positions, they usually report facing sexist behavior from their male colleagues; this can be witnessed in the seasonal sexual harassment scandals that erupt out of those NGOs.
Throughout the long waiting period, I listened to the male candidates’ conversations with each other. I gathered that they all had obtained PhDs or graduate degrees in gender equality and development, yet their mindsets were still clearly the same as any other Middle Eastern man plagued by toxic masculinity. They talked about how to overcome the “overbearing power” women achieve nowadays, which causes men to lose job opportunities even though they “deserve them more because we are supposed to feed our families while women just spend their money on shopping.” One of the men mentioned how “giving women this much economic, political, or social power, status and freedom is throwing off Middle Eastern values” and hurting their masculinity.
Yemeni men are generally taught from a very young age that they have dominance over their female counterparts and that their roles are completely segregated based on gender. Men expect women to be obedient; any rebellious behavior is considered a challenge to their “masculinity.” Female rebellion is still punishable by honor killings, a crime for which men usually don’t receive much legal punishment according to the Yemeni law on the subject. In this culture of misogyny, women in the workplace, let alone women in leadership positions in the workplace, must struggle to be respected.
I mostly remained silent while they spoke, but couldn’t help but intervene in a few of their arguments. When they discussed how women do not need higher education, let alone careers, I challenged them, but they aggressively responded with demeaning comments about how women do not understand half of what they say, how I should not intervene in a conversation between men, and how I needed to get married and busy with domestic work instead of trying to steal their jobs.
After what felt like an eternity, we were ushered into the test hall. I finished as quickly as I could, but on my way out, the NGO’s HR manager stopped me. He mistook me for one of his staff members, but after a quick introduction we discussed why I was there and my credentials. He was quite impressed with my accomplishments, and while we were in the midst of talking about gender issues in Yemen, one of the male candidates came out of the test hall, turned to me, and said, “Where did you go? I was writing an answer sheet to submit for you! I could have landed you this job.”
Let’s be clear: I do not know this man, nor did we ever have any interaction in which either of us indicated that I was incapable of writing my own answers or landing the job myself, nor that I wanted him to submit answers on my behalf. The only knowledge he had about me is that I am a woman, which was apparently enough information for him to use to assume I needed his help. Thankfully, before I could even respond, the HR manager replied, “Son, did you not just come out of a gender equality officer interview test? This is not the right job for you; please leave.” I added, “Did you think I am incapable of finishing my own test because I am a woman, thus, I am weak, and less smart than you, a man?”
At this point, this horrific, sexist experience quickly infiltrated my personal life. Despite making my thoughts about this male candidate pretty clear to him, I arrived home that night to an email from him. I had not given him my contact information, so he apparently stole it from the details on my test paper. In his email, the man told me I am good looking and he would like to meet in a coffee shop and that he could give me a job. I did not respond to his email and simply blocked it, but in Yemen, a woman who ignores a man is assumed to be playing hard to get. He continued to call me and send inappropriate pictures to my personal email and number for several months.
Thankfully, this man eventually got bored and gave up. This is fortunate, since there is a complete absence of authorities who could have helped with a situation of this nature and, what’s more, as a Middle Eastern woman, I would be considered at fault by society as well as the law for being stalked, harassed, and intellectually berated because I had met him in my pursuit of a job rather than staying home. Even worse, I went to a job interview without a veil.
I later learned the job vacancy for which I went through all of this trouble was filled by a man. Toxic masculinity remains an unspoken problem that plagues Yemen, and the offhand efforts of normalizing gender equality and equity by NGOs remains a formality that is pursued in order to avoid negative media attention and to increase funding chances for projects, as donors seem to favor gender-sensitive projects in their partnership contracts. The lack of women in CEO and any leadership positions has greatly contributed to the escalation of the gender gap in the nonprofit sector. As a former applicant in this space, I am certain that women in leadership positions will be key to resolving the sexism issues that go unreported or ignored.
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