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Advancing gender equality in Sri Lanka: A crucial balancing act

Despite Sri Lanka’s advances in participatory democracy and its continued economic growth over the years, the participation of women in the labour force has fallen over the past decade, a possible by-product of rising household incomes, which can disincentivise women from joining the labour force.

Heralded by the hashtag #balanceforbetter, International Women’s Day 2019 arrives March 8 with the call to create a gender-balanced working world. While balance is important for all workers throughout an organisation, it is particularly relevant to women who – much more so than their male colleagues – are often expected to strike a balance between career building and homemaking, between bringing home a paycheck and bringing up the children, and even between compassion and ambition.

From a more practical perspective, gender balance means creating more equitable opportunities for women, particularly at the highest levels of an organisation. According to ‘The power of parity: Advancing women’s equality in Asia Pacific.’ a report published by McKinsey’s business and research arm, McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), women in the region continue to be concentrated in lower growth sectors and lower paying roles – with 3.2 times more women in clerical support than men. Despite the increasing role of the digital economy, women are 0.6 times less in tech. The talent pipeline also narrows for women, with a drop of over 50% of representation from entry level to senior management.

Beyond the moral and ethical implications suggested by this imbalance, gender inequality puts corporations at a disadvantage. McKinsey research from our ‘Women Matter’ series has shown that greater representation of women in senior corporate positions correlates to improved business performance. In essence, diversity leads to more dynamic discussions, a broader range of factors considered, and healthy challenges to conventional thinking. The benefits apply to governments, as well as private organisations.

Ultimately, measures that help promote gender balance – for instance, flexible hours and expanded parental leave – directly improve the work-life balance of all employees, female and male. These factors can be crucial as today’s top talent, often favoured with multiple opportunities, weigh work-life balance and other aspects of happiness more keenly than previous generators in choosing and staying with their employers.

Gender balance – a trisector effort

Much is at stake. MGI’s report has estimated that $12 trillion can be added to global growth by advancing gender equality. Sri Lanka specifically has the potential to add $20 billion a year to its GDP by 2025, which would increase its current economic growth trajectory by about 14%.

Capturing these benefits requires not just a vision and a will, but also proactive and focused measures. Governments, companies, and society, which make up this key trifecta, must work together to unlock this potential. Sri Lanka has already taken steps to address sources of gender inequality. The country was one of the first in Asia to grant voting rights to women, and, in 1960, it became the first nation to elect a woman as prime minister. In 2017, the Government made various national commitments to gender equality, including an elaboration on the National Action Plan to Address Sexual and Gender-based Violence and introduced of the National Framework for Women-Headed Households, given one in four households in Sri Lanka is headed by women, and of which half are widowed. Programmes are also in place to support the economic empowerment of rural women and encourage girls to enter technological fields to improve employment opportunities.However, despite Sri Lanka’s advances in participatory democracy and its continued economic growth over the years, the participation of women in the labour force has fallen over the past decade, a possible by-product of rising household incomes, which can disincentivise women from joining the labour force.

Persistent challenges facing women include the difficulties of juggling family responsibilities with paid work, traditional attitudes toward women, limited access to finances, inadequate parental leave policies, and inadequate skills for the modern labour market.

Prioritising Government action for gender equality

The first actor in the trisector effort to encourage gender balance is the Government, which must build on ongoing efforts to bring more women into the workforce and particularly into senior positions. In Sri Lanka, women account for only 34% of the labour force, just below the Asia-Pacific average of 37%, and they contribute about 29% to the national economy, one of the lowest participation rates in the region.

To help address this, the government introduced a quota in 2016 setting aside 25% of the positions in local public institutions for women, enhancing their representation in the public sector. Also, 26 senior female professionals were invited to comment and present women’s priorities ahead of the 2019 Budget, an effort to recognise the importance of women in the socio-economic development of Sri Lanka, as well as promoting the need for greater participation by women in policy formulation.

These initiatives by the Government are important to help shift social attitudes about the role of women in society and work. Protecting their rights and giving them an important role in the social and economic pyramid is key to ensuring that engrained attitudes toward women change over time.

The business case for gender equality

Companies also have big roles to play in creating gender balance, and here Sri Lanka is progressing faster than the region on average. In Asia-Pacific, only about a quarter of managerial positions or higher is held by women, while in Sri Lanka, the ratio rises to about a third.

Some corporations in Sri Lanka are working to improve equity further. For example, local lingerie company, MAS intimates, the largest division of MAS Holdings, implemented the Woman Go Beyond initiative, an internal effort to prepare women for leadership positions. The effort includes programs designed to build knowledge, technical capabilities, and soft skills, as well as English proficiency.

Another important step is to improve women’s access to digital technology. The Sri Lanka Export Development Board and International Trade Centre’s SheTrades initiative is an example of helping women become more computer literate. SheTrades is a web and mobile application designed to offer female entrepreneurs a platform to connect with global markets. The Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration has also joined with Monash University in Australia to develop a course to assist women entrepreneurs in building their businesses using technology.

Cultural change to break gender gridlock

Society generally is the last trisector element. Deeply rooted attitudes play an integral part in limiting the potential of women, and an investment in public awareness to shift social norms and help ease the path for working women.

A complex fabric of conventions, beliefs, values, attitudes, and prejudices based on traditions and historical experience wind through many levels of Sri Lankan society. The movement to change these traditional mindsets may be slow, but it is essential for real and long-term change.

Education and awareness are crucial. Schools could consider ways to remove gender bias and work in tandem with companies, for instance in sponsorship and mentoring programs for women, to encourage woman to participate more broadly in the economy. Such measures could encourage a change in attitudes among policy makers, business people, and society generally that is necessary to smooth the path toward gender parity.

Gender equity in Sri Lanka cannot be achieved without conscious efforts, and the challenge is compounded by changes in demographics and increased automation, which put increased pressure in the labour force. But if the tripartite actors – government, companies, and society generally – work together, progress can be made and everyone can capture the benefits of #balanceforbetter.

This article appeared in DailyFT on March, 2019, and is reprinted here by permission.