The appointment of the first woman Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a Sri Lankan conglomerate is a noteworthy moment in history. But beyond the well-earned platitudes, it’s important to understand that women have always played a significant role in Sri Lanka’s economy but continue to be disempowered and sidelined in many aspects of Sri Lankan politics, policymaking and support structures. In 2019, women made up just 8% of boards of listed companies, underscoring why this is such a significant achievement.
From an economic standpoint, women not only make up the bulk of Sri Lanka’s population, but are also the largest foreign exchange earners. For decades, remittances have remained at the top of Sri Lanka’s earnings, followed by apparel and tea, which are dominated by women workers. Tourism, which has climbed to the third spot, also benefits from significant female employment. Yet women still face massive bottlenecks in every sphere of life.
Despite contributing so much women only make up 34% of the formal workforce in Sri Lanka – and this number has remained unchanged for decades. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has estimated that Sri Lanka’s GDP could grow by as much as 2% per annum if there were reforms to encourage more women to join the formal workforce. Women also make up a large part of low income and low skill sectors such as agriculture and as a result have less opportunities for social mobility and skills development.
Women’s representation in politics has been dismal, especially at Parliament level. Even though a quota was introduced at Local Government level, there is much that needs to be done to increase women’s representation in national politics, and also to encourage women elected to office to work on issues that have significant impact for women. Despite making a marked economic contribution, women are still routinely discriminated on a range of points, including pay gaps, glass ceilings, limited access to credit, low representation in governance structures, and even transport safety.
Levelling the employment playing field requires building an environment for skilled women to create their own opportunities. This means addressing social norms about working women, and promoting an environment where women can balance work and family. It also means addressing gender-based differential treatment under the law, which the Government has pledged to tackle, but is likely to find a hard and long road.
Mentoring is another aspect that needs desperate attention. Indebtedness created in some parts of Sri Lanka, particularly in the North, is largely due to female entrepreneurs being lured into making bad financial decisions in limited ventures. In fact, in studies done on successful female entrepreneurs, mentorship has been ranked above capital in importance, and often makes the difference between a sustainable model and a pipe dream.
Larger issues around women’s safety needs to be addressed. Women are still routinely and persistently harassed, even for tasks as mundane as walking down the road, and this larger societal change needs to be spearheaded by the Government and supported by public stakeholders.
Ironically the very politicians who have hailed the latest appointment of Kasturi Chellaraja Wilson have done very little to introduce change and improve female representation even within their own political parties, never mind larger policy changes. While congratulating the new CEO, Sri Lankans should also be asking why more women are not in similar positions and how the structural and systemic issues need to be addressed.