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Speeches & Transcripts December 4, 2017

Country Director's Keynote Address at Young Woman Engineer of the Year 2017 Awards in Sri Lanka

Eng. (Ms.) Ranjinee Lanka Haturusingha - First Lady President Institution of Engineers Sri Lanka (IESL), Prof. (Eng.) (Ms.) I.J. Dayawansa -First Lady President of Institution of Engineering & Technology Sri Lanka Network (IET-Sri Lanka), Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

It is indeed my honor to address you this evening.  It is an extra pleasure always to be invited to an event that honors women; but its more special when that event honors young women. 

Let me begin by congratulating the award winners and all the female professionals in engineering and technology gathered here.  Your achievements show that it is possible for young women to succeed in areas often not associated with our gender.   I am certain that for many of these young women gathered here today, this has been a dream that began many a year back.  A dream that was sparked by an imagination of what it would be like to be the one who designs and builds something; as opposed to being the consumer.

I also congratulate the many menfolk here; your presence in these young women’s lives cannot be taken for granted. 

In my line of work we talk statistics all the time.  You may have seen some of the recent ones we published not too long ago -  such as that only 1 in 3 women participate in the labor force in Sri Lanka.  And that Sri Lanka has the world’s 14th largest gender gap in labor force participation.  I am certain that you know the reasons far better than I could ever articulate them.  But I am sure that these are not great statistics. 

Let me digress a little and speculate a little about what made these young women we are celebrating today standout.  Now, I haven’t spoken to them; but I do remember what it was like to be a young professional – although I may have to use a calculator to tell you exactly when that was!   

  1. I think that every one of you has this fire inside that drove you to do Science, Technology, Engineering and Math; subjects that girls do not traditionally study at school.  Believing in yourself is the most important ingredient for success.
  2. You probably have a fierce mother behind you!  If your mother is anything like mine; then you know what I mean.  My mother’s chief focus was to get all the girls educated.  And despite herself never earning a degree – 4 of the 5 girls have either a Masters or a PHD; and the 5th an undergraduate degree.  My father was always the soothing and encouraging voice – making sure I stayed the course.  What parents, mentors, Peers or the special people in our lives do and say matters.  
  3. You probably spent many a sleepless night reading and doing assignments to ensure that you got the best grades possible.  Work ethic matters. 

But we also know that this is the beginning of many challenges to come.  I am particularly keen to highlight what I consider the lifecycle of a young woman after they complete their studies.

There is the job.  In our studies, we are finding that many young women shun work in the private sector and focus on getting a job in the government.  This leads to serious under-representation of women in the private sector.  Granted there are some inequalities in the benefits, such as pensions and leave; but how do you expect to change a system by avoiding it?  Systems change from the inside. 

Then there is the marriage.  An incredibly joyous time for you and a proud moment for the parents and family.  In our recent study, Getting to Work: Unlocking Women’s Potential in Sri Lanka’s Labor Force, we find that for women marriage can function as a deterrent to participation in labor markets.  And it can drastically lower a woman’s odds—by 26 percentage points—of becoming a paid employee, while for men it slightly increases the odds, by 2.5 percentage points.  Now, let me clarify; I am not saying don’t get married.  I don’t want a mutiny on my hands. I am saying being married is not an excuse to stop dreaming or aspiring.  In fact, with two of you now, marriage should translate into broader and better support system to a successful career.  Personally, my husband has been my biggest cheerleader.

With marriage often come the children.  Another joyous moment that offers an experience like no other. It truly is amazing.  But as many work places do not have child care services; nor do they offer the flexibility of hours worked to the young mother – once her leave is exhausted she does not have too many choices but to quit and hope to rejoin the work place later.  Truth though is the world is changing and skills need to be used and adapted if one is to remain relevant to the employer.  So, they never come back. What a waste! Simple solutions such as workplace day care centers where young mothers can visit with their babies during the day would go a long way to alleviating the child care pressures. 

Sri Lanka’s population is getting older. The demographics are evident.  Unfortunately, in this culture as in mine there is the expectation that women are the main source of care for ageing or sick relatives.  The truth though is that a shared burden is a lighter burden.  If both men and women participated in the care, then women would have the opportunity to continue to be a part of the workforce.

If it doesn't exist create it.  If you can’t get the job you want –  maybe you can create your own.  Women entrepreneurs are few; but with training and access to credit and market linkages, which allow for the establishment of successful businesses, it is possible. The other day I was speaking with a work colleague on some gender work we plan to launch and we needed to identify successful Sri Lankan women as role models.  I can assure you that you are not alone; do a bit of research, learn why those women have been successful, reach out to them and learn life skills.  Sri Lanka needs job creators and not just job seekers.

But women need help to succeed.   Earlier I gave you the not so good statistics.  Turning those around will take more than a woman’s determination.  Let me touch upon a few factors that I think need to align:

  1. Labor laws need examining and updating to ensure that they create the right incentives for women to want to work in non-traditional jobs.  This will in turn incentivize girls - and their families to pursue STEM subjects from an early stage.
  2. Government and employers need to mandate that the work place is safe for women.  Emphasize non-discriminatory policies, including zero tolerance for sexual harassment.  And given the low numbers of women in the workplace it is OK to practice affirmative action to help expand women’s share of employment.   I have no doubt that you will hear those who will say that affirmative action will allow low performers in.  My question is if these same girls did so well at school why have they suddenly lost their ability. Hire, train and mentor them; you will not be disappointed.
  3. Employers need to understand that getting women to work will require deploying ambitious, multi-pronged strategies that address the many issues impacting women’s participation in the workforce. Success will hinge on collaboration between various stakeholders, ranging from relevant government counterparts, education providers, and private sector, amongst others.  Employers need to be innovative in the way they think of women in the work place.  It’s a proven fact that hiring women is smart economics.

I have no doubt that every single one of ladies in this room have your own story of challenges and obstacles you may have faced in your journey to get to where you are today. But don’t let the struggle you faced define who you are or limit what you can become.  Use that experience as a catalyst to achieving even more.

I choose to end my speech by quoting Otara Gunawardena, a renowned Sri Lankan woman and leading entrepreneur.  She says - “Leadership is courage to adjust mistakes, vision to welcome change and courage to stay out of step when everyone else is marching to the wrong tune

So to all the women here today and especially to the winners, I wish you happy trails and may you pick the steps that take you in the direction you desire. 

Congratulations again.

Thank you for listening!