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Getting more women in the workforce

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Colombo DIG Ajith Rohana speaking at the Women in Management (WIM) event held last week in Colombo

The current female labour force participation in Sri Lanka is around 36%. This means that a disproportionate majority of women still remain outside the labour market, with limited or no access to wages, pensions and other benefits tied to gainful employment. 

Today 29% of the GDP of Sri Lanka is contributed directly by women, as against 11% in Pakistan, 18% in India and 19% in Bangladesh, which means that Sri Lanka is generally ahead in the South Asian region. However, the participation of women in the workforce needs to increase. Evidence largely points to several constraints that effectively limit women’s participation in the labour force – ranging from outdated legislation to the lack of access to vocational training and also due to cultural barriers. It is increasingly evident that social and cultural factors play a defining role in determining women’s inclusion in the labour market. Given that Sri Lanka is short of blue collar workers, increasing women’s access to employment is necessary to increase female participation in the Labour force. 

A multiple stakeholder group recently set up at the national level to look at providing greater access for women to the labour market recommended that the government set itself a goal of increasing female labour force participation to 40% by 2020. Therefore, getting more women into the workforce is not just a human rights issue but it is a necessity to sustain our economic growth. Many Sri Lankan women seeking to enter the workplace in Sri Lanka today face a multitude of challenges, including gender discrimination, greater household responsibilities and gender-based disparities in income. Therefore attitudes both at the office and at home need to change for more women to take their place in the workforce. 

One of the most effective ways for Sri Lanka to expand its workforce is simply to get more women to join the labour force. Workforce diversity can also enrich businesses at every level.


Sri Lankan women might be reluctant to enter the workforce mainly due to family commitments. Traditional responsibilities as a woman can affect their choice of employment. Furthermore, educated women even give up on their career to focus on motherhood and their families. Some companies are hesitant to provide career opportunities to pregnant women and mothers. This can contribute to educated married women not engaging in paid employment. Women may also be discriminated in Sri Lanka at the point of the job adverts that ask only for male candidates. Some companies still continue to look for only male applicants to fill certain vacancies, especially certain top level management positions. This can discourage women from entering the workforce or limit opportunities to climb up the organisational ladder. 

The expectation that men are more capable than women in certain roles still prevails in society. Another reason is a lack of safety. If women are asked to work late hours without transportation facilities being provided they might be discouraged from engaging in such jobs. Furthermore, women may face difficulties like violence and sexual harassment at workplaces. 


Therefore, it is important to provide flexible working hours and assure safe transport and a safe working environment for women by introducing more policies against harassment. Provision of safe childcare and day care for mothers can also encourage women having children to enter the workforce. Because for women, being married and having children reduces the opportunity of entering the workforce, whereas being married encourages men to enter paid employment. Because sometimes companies believe that mothers are less committed to work since they have other commitments and that fathers are more committed to their workplace. Attitudes of people and companies can also affect the rate of female participation in the workforce. 

For instance, women are believed to be less capable in certain specific roles even though they are equally capable and as proficient as men. Also, the attitude of their families towards certain jobs can hinder them from entering the workforce. Differences in the way that the labour market values the skills of men and women can make educated women reluctant to enter the workforce. Therefore offering young women access to career counselling and designing courses of study that create candidates for available jobs, while policymakers work on addressing institutional and legal issues that hamper women’s participation and integration in the economy, are all crucial steps that need to be taken.

(The writer is a HR Thought leader)

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