FEATURE STORY November 22, 2017

Getting More Sri Lankan Women to Work: It Can Be Done

World Bank Group


STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • The most equitable and sustainable way of growing Sri Lanka’s overall workforce will be by increasing the numbers of women working.
  • By addressing issues around safety, equitability and work-life balance, the private sector can support working women.
  • It will take a host of varied, context-specific initiatives to change attitudes, but it can be done.

A new report from the World Bank Getting to Work: Unlocking Women’s Potential in Sri Lanka’s Labor Force seeks to understand why Sri Lankan women’s already poor rates of labor force participation continue to decline despite steady economic growth.

“Getting to Work” finds young and poorer women in Sri Lanka are particularly vulnerable, experiencing significantly higher rates of unemployment; but it is the country’s 1.2 million female headed households who experience some of the poorest labor force outcomes. Some of these trends have only become even more entrenched since the end of the conflict.

In November, the World Bank participated in a series of panel discussions with the Government, the private sector and civil society, to unpack the findings of the new report. Of particular interest were practical actions that had been taken on the ground, and policy reforms that could support women by boosting skills, resolving issues around safety and childcare, and creating a working environment free of discrimination and sexual harassment.  

Speaking at the event, Valerie Layrol, Operations Advisor for the World Bank in Sri Lanka and the Maldives said: “We are here today because we recognize that no country can rise to its full potential if it disadvantages half its population. In other words, for countries to truly reach their development potential, everyone—both women and men—will have to be able to contribute to their full capacities.”

Layrol added that addressing these challenges in Sri Lanka was essential to achieving the Government’s vision of creating 1 million jobs, fostering investment in the private sector, and enhancing social inclusion outcomes as the country strives to become an upper-middle- income country.


"We are here today because we recognize that no country can rise to its full potential if it disadvantages half its population. In other words, for countries to truly reach their development potential, everyone—both women and men—will have to be able to contribute to their full capacities."
Valerie Layrol
Operations Advisor for the World Bank in Sri Lanka and the Maldives

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Increasing women’s participation in the labour force is a national priority

The Sri Lankan population’s aging and labor out-migration continues. Our supply of labor is becoming tight. Sri Lanka is no longer a labor surplus economy and can no longer hope to grow through investment in labor-intensive production activities,” said Dr Nandaka Molagoda, who represented the Prime Minister’s Office at the discussion. He added: “Sri Lanka can obtain the necessary labor force for the economy’s future expansion by encouraging more women to participate.”  

Currently, 60 percent of employers report difficulty in finding new workers, reflecting excess demand for labor. Highlighting the issue of labor shortages at both ends of the spectrum—both high skill and low skill— Dr. Kamlagoda said it had become more crucial than ever to understand what was holding women back from participation.  

As highlighted by “Getting to Work,” the most equitable and sustainable way of growing Sri Lanka’s overall workforce will be by increasing the numbers of women working. By raising the rate of women’s LFP by 15 percentage points over current rates, Sri Lanka can add more than 1 million workers to the labor market each year.

By addressing challenges women face in the workplace, Sri Lankan organisations and companies can reap the benefits of a diverse workforce, become the employer of choice for both men and women, reduce absenteeism among employees and retain the skills and knowledge of experienced female staff, instead of seeing them drop out due to the pressures of family expectations and responsibilities.  

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The private sector has an important part to play

While public sector initiatives and reforms are underway, the slow pace of implementation remains a challenge. The private sector can bridge the gap.   

Chiranthi Cooray, Chairwoman of the Female Labor Force Participation (FLFP) Task Force said that new public-private partnerships were key to this effort. The private sector currently employs the highest number of female employees—amounting to some 977,271 women according to the 2015 Sri Lanka Labour Force Survey.

Among the issues keeping women away from work, the report identifies security concerns, inadequate or unsafe transportation networks, child and elder care responsibilities, gender-based pay inequities and lack of employable skills.

Among these issues are several which the private sector is well placed to address. For instance, drawing on her own experience, Deshika Rodrigo, Head of Human Resources at Standard Chartered Bank spoke of how women often failed to make the transition to managerial levels, as that time in their lives coincided with growing responsibilities in the home. To address the issue of childcare in particular, Standard Chartered created a crèche and instituted a host of complementary programs addressing safety, transport and sexual harassment in the workplace.

Another positive example came from Ajay Amalean. The founding director of Sri Lankan garment giant MAS, Amalean revealed that providing high-quality childcare at their factory in Jordan helped them dramatically reduce absenteeism and retain their female employees. “It made it [the crèche] from a cost centre to a profit centre,” he said, explaining the benefits were qualitative as well, contributing to a culture of respect and support and improving relations between employers and employees. MAS has rolled out similar initiatives across several factories in Sri Lanka, including in Kilinochchi, Mihintale and Mahiyangana.

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Change attitudes through innovative, practical and context-specific approaches

A slew of policy measures and new programs are in the pipeline, but changing social attitudes will be key to increasing women’s participation. Ideas of what women and girls should study have contributed to a human-capital mismatch. Women must be incentivised and supported as they challenge gender norms to pursue subjects that are in demand with employers such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and in technical and vocational education and training (TVET) programs.

Gender researcher Dileni Gunewardena also highlighted how policy-makers must consider how women at different levels of the economic ladder would require different kinds of support. “Rather than glass ceilings, the problem we have is sticky floors,” she said referring to her study of gender gaps across the spectrum from high-income to low-income. Perceptions around the value of their work ensured that women in the lowest deciles struggled to rise out of poverty. In addition, those employed in the informal sector, had to contend with absence of benefits like maternity leave, flexible working hours and health insurance. 

Attitudinal changes could also be inspired by unconventional and imaginative projects. Using the example of telenovelas and soap operas in countries like Brazil which had contributed to better family planning and labor market outcomes, Gunawardena illustrated the impact popular entertainment could have on socio-cultural norms. She said Sri Lankan media could play a key role here, for instance by making great television shows that portrayed women as something other than wives, homemakers and mothers.

Women’s attitudes toward their own careers could be shifted by exposure to inspiring female mentors, noted Jennifer L. Solotaroff, lead author of the report. Mentoring of girls and young women at every level of their academic lives could embolden them to study subjects in demand with employers. As they move into the workplace, practical advice from mentors could help women climb the corporate ladder or support female entrepreneurs as they navigated the system.

In this way mentorship programs could be aspirational, showing young women how getting to work benefits them, their families and the larger Sri Lankan community. 



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