2019 Aug 27
From electing the world’s first female Prime Minister to building up from the ashes of the civil war, fighting for Constitutional Reforms, and conquering Mt. Everest, Sri Lankan women are as resilient as they are a silent force of power.
Sri Lanka produced not only the world’s first woman Prime Minister in 1960, it also elected the country’s first woman Executive President in 1994. With such a legacy, it is a puzzle as to why there is such abysmally low political participation by Sri Lankan women.
Even with the likes of Jayanthi Dharmasena (Managing Director of Hayleys Agriculture), Marise Deckker (Managing Director of Astron Ltd), Indrani Fernando (Managing Director of Philips Hospital), local retail icon Otara Gunewardene, Founder/CEO of Embark, and Rose Cooray, (Director of HNB and Former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka) sitting at the head table of board rooms we are still seeing low rates of representation and participation in most spheres.
Women in Sri Lanka form approximately 57% of a total estimated population of 21 million. However, out of the total economically active population of 8.5 million persons, only 33.4% are women. Thus, almost 70% of the labour force constitutes economically inactive women.
Participation by women in Sri Lanka’s economy, which is 35.8%, is significantly less when compared with male participation rates. However, this does not mean that women are not contributing to the economy, but is a clear indicator that women are often unpaid and unrecognized family members. This is an injustice and disservice to women who should instead be motivated to play a greater role as Sri Lanka’s engine of growth. The contributions by women toward Sri Lanka’s economy have yet to be measured correctly and fairly, which if done right will better acknowledge and inspire us in our most important role, to help Sri Lanka ascend to greater levels of economic and inclusive prosperity.
The abysmal rates could be due to the fact that Sri Lankan women might be reluctant to enter the workforce mainly due to family commitments and traditional responsibilities. And to further aggravate the situation, companies are hesitant to provide career opportunities to pregnant women and mothers.
Women may also be discriminated in Sri Lanka at the point of the job adverts that ask only for male candidates. Some companies still continue to look for only male applicants to fill certain vacancies, especially certain top level management positions. This can discourage women from entering the workforce or limit opportunities to climb up the organisational ladder.
Furthermore the expectation that men are more capable than women in certain roles still prevails in society. Another reason is a lack of safety. If women are asked to work late hours without transportation facilities being provided they might be discouraged from engaging in such jobs. Furthermore, women may face difficulties like violence and sexual harassment at workplaces.
Therefore offering young women access to career counselling and designing courses of study that create candidates for available jobs, while policymakers work on addressing institutional and legal issues that hamper women’s participation and integration in the economy, are all crucial steps that need to be taken.
With powerhouse women taking control of the boardrooms, we need to ensure we do not let down the decades of work of those before us who fought archaic social and cultural norms to break glass ceilings and put their foot in the door so that the future generation could reap the benefits.
Today 29% of the GDP of Sri Lanka is contributed directly by women, as against 11% in Pakistan, 18% in India and 19% in Bangladesh, which means that Sri Lanka is generally ahead in the South Asian region. So a round of applause to our women but I have an inkling this is only the tester of what is truly about to come once archaic laws, traditions and regulations are struck down to foster a much more conducive environment for women to truly achieve their potential.
This effort is not only about boosting gender equality and female representation and participation but studies show that companies with at least one female director have a better share price performance and return on equity , raking in 3.7% more per year over those companies who do not have female leadership or heavy participation of females in the higher tiers. Furthermore studies have also concluded that having at least 30% of women in leadership positions added 6% to net profit margins.
Now this is just about companies making the right decisions and clearing the way for more female participation and representation in their portfolios so that they can fatten their bottom line. At this point it is not just about gender equality but also boosting economic performance. It would be foolish to succumb to patriarchal and cultural norms that could leave you behind in this rat race we call life.