Sri Lanka Needs More Women in the Workforce. What is Keeping Them Away?

March 16, 2017

IT Shakthi members participate in a ice breaker

Participants of a community youth group in a team building exercise in Hatton. 

Photo Credit: Smriti Daniel

  • Welcoming women into the workforce is not just a human rights issue, but smart economics.
  • Women seeking to enter the workplace in Sri Lanka face a multitude of challenges, including gender discrimination, greater household responsibilities and gender-based disparities in income.
  • Attitudes, both at the office and at home, need to change for women to take their place in the workforce.

L. Kokilavani gives off an air of quiet competence. The 30-year old midwife is a member of a community youth group in Sri Lanka’s Central Province. Their goal is to improve nutrition using technology. Kokilavani has worked as a nurse and received training in sexual and reproductive health rights and so she brings her own unique perspective to this meeting at the Sarvodaya centre in Hatton. 

Kokilavani has come to the meeting today because she wants to learn how she can couple her expertise in health with applications such as Facebook to increase her outreach efforts. She says there is a vicious cycle in place: “An undernourished mother will give birth to an underweight child, and if this child is not helped, then she herself will continue the cycle.” This problem has serious implications for the estate community, taking a toll on everything from their earning capacity to their educational gains.

Other women in this group highlight the issues that affect their working lives. One has an ailing mother at home and has taken upon herself the role of caregiver. Another says she struggles to balance education with employment; working five days a week she studies on weekends. Kokilavani’s peer, T. Priya is unemployed and waiting for the right job, preferably one in government. But she is discouraged to pursue her dreams without means to overcome obstacles such as paying bribes. Priya also admits that marriage might change everything. Currently single, the 24-year-old is determined to work even after she finds a partner and starts a family. “Do you think your husband might object?” she is asked. She acknowledges the very real possibility, but keeps her response simple: “I will overcome that and work.”  

Her determination is admirable but a look at the statistics around female labour force participation can make it seem like the odds are stacked against her—in Sri Lanka, young women have the highest rates of unemployment.

It makes the theme for the 2017 edition of International Women’s Day—“Women in the Changing World of Work”—particularly apt. In Sri Lanka, the question remains not just of how to make the workplace more inviting to women, but simultaneously how to increase the number of women in employment. The island hosts the 17-th largest gender gap in labour force participation globally. Gender discrimination at every step of employment—from job hunting to hiring to promotion—is a reality many women face. At home, gender once again can determine who bears the burden of caregiving and is primarily responsible for household work. Studies reveal that, unlike for men, marriage serves as a penalty on women’s odds of participating in labour markets.

“Its clear gender equality needs to start with the family, and to start in the home,” says World Bank Country Director Sri Lanka and Maldives Dr. Idah Pswarayi-Riddihough.

The benefits of boosting women’s participation in the workforce is not just about supporting human rights, it’s also about smart economics. Studies have shown that the most effective way for Sri Lanka to grow its workforce is simply to welcome more women into it. “We should be working very hard on getting people to understand the importance of diversity. It can’t be a token thing to have diversity on the job,” says Pswarayi-Riddihough, adding that diversity enriches businesses at every level. It allows companies to make smarter decisions for their employees even as they meet the needs, and win the trust, of a wider range of consumers.

 While many young Sri Lankan female graduates prefer government jobs, Pswarayi-Riddihough underlines the need to nudge those like T. Priya toward exploring opportunities in the private sector. This effort might begin early on, with offering young girls access to career counselling and designing courses of study that create candidates for available jobs. However, while the policy makers work on addressing institutional and legal issues that hamper women’s participation, all Sri Lankans should recognize the need for this change in attitude.

“When you look at the data, it’s very clear that the work environment for women can be much tougher in the private sector than in the government sector,” says Pswarayi-Riddihough, adding that this can translate into a sense of insecurity for women. The Sri Lankan private sector needs to take up the challenge to create a conducive environment that attracts women to work.

There is a pressing need to see attitudes and priorities shift both outside and inside the workplace, and without it, women’s participation will continue to lag. Women themselves can do a lot to drive this change. Says Pswarayi-Riddihough: “We should ask ourselves, as women, why we don’t do more to break the barriers? Why do we continue to fit into a mould we don’t like?”