I turned 50 on Friday. Don’t worry, it’s no biggie. Ever since I learnt that Brad Pitt is, and always will be, a year older than me, I’ve been quite upbeat about getting older. But it is a milestone nevertheless and I was remembering that I got my first job, a short-lived – four days – stint as a barman at the Golden Lion in Soho, 32 years ago. Since then I have done everything from demolish houses, move dead bodies at a hospital morgue, crew yachts and work in a quite large retail bank. Oh, and there was a disastrous spell in the British Army.
My first proper job was as a glorified office boy in the publicity department at Quartet, the publishing house owned by the Palestinian entrepreneur and former banker Naim Attallah. Quartet’s Goodge Street offices were stuffed to the gills with what the media would today called “posh totty”. They included Nigella Lawson, Rebecca Fraser, Candida Crew, Liza Campbell, Zelfa Hourani, a Bonham-Carter here and a Heathcoat-Amory there. One occasionally spotted a tweedy and bespectacled man cloistered in a small office, but by and large this was brainy babe-central, just as Naim liked it.
My boss was a formidable woman called Penny Grant and it didn’t take me long to figure out that women were better organisers than men, a theory that gathered greater credo one year later when I found myself toiling at a different coalface, this time as a seasonal sales assistant in the Christmas cards department at Harrods, where I had another super-focused female boss. I can’t remember her name but she fired me for sleeping in the stockroom after lunch, so well done her.
I returned to Lebanon in 1992 and once again found myself in the company of women, this time at the American University of Beirut, where the female-male ratio in my department was around 10 to one. All were visibly more able and dedicated than the sprinkling of us men. Since then I have had the pleasure of working with women in magazines, newspapers, ad agencies, PR companies and regional multinationals and they have, with a few unfortunate exceptions, sustained my undying admiration.
It may sound ironic but the Middle East – Lebanon in particular – is a fertile ground for the woman executive. Sure, it’s drenched in misogyny and some of the “gestures of affection” I have seen in the workplace would have abruptly ended many a career in Europe or the US. But Lebanon’s liberal milieu and the high supply of highly educated women has meant they have excelled in corporate middle management, a role requiring a degree of focus sadly lacking in the ego-driven and testosterone-fuelled Lebanese Alpha male.
We need to see much more in senior management and the boardroom as well as parliament and government. Lebanon might actually achieve something if women were running the show.
So what else have I learnt in over two decades of gainful employment in this mad country? Well, for a start, graduates are wildly overrated. Yes we will always need our professionals – doctors, engineers, lawyers and the like, but there is a school of thought in the West that posits that the pro-forma degree is dying due to an oversupply. This is evident in Lebanon, where there are far too many bogus universities pandering to parents anxious that their kids go to college; where one might encounter a receptionist with an MBA and where a fresh engineering graduate is lucky to take home $750 a month.
Apprenticeships and vocational training are the way forward. They would give school leavers tangible skill sets and allow them to productively fill positions that are currently occupied by disgruntled media studies graduates.
Finally, there are too many “deadwood” employees. The Lebanese should learn to fire more people. The workforce would be better off for it when people realise they are there to be productive and not just collect a salary.
And women are the ones to do it. I should know.
Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.
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