Gender-smart solutions empowering women at the workplace

Wednesday, 29 May 2019 00:22 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

CEO panel session (from left): IFC Sri Lanka Women in Work Program Manager Carmen Niethammer (moderator), Jetwing Hotels Chairman Shiromal Cooray, SDB Bank Chairperson Samadanie Kiriwandeniya, Fairway Holdings Group CEO Imal Fonseka, John Keells Group President HR and Legal Dilani Alagaratnam and MAS Intimates CEO Suren Fernando


By Fathima Riznaz Hafi

Marking its first anniversary, the IFC-led SheWorks Sri Lanka partnership, supported by the Women in Work program, launched its year-one progress report titled ‘Making Progress: Sri Lankan Businesses Advance Gender Equality at the Workplace’ recently in Colombo. Business heads from leading companies gathered to join the celebration, which was followed by a CEO panel discussion.

The SheWorks Sri Lanka partnership is a collaboration of 18 leading employers across different industries, which include banking, finance, apparel, and tourism, who are committed to boost female participation in the private sector, by executing gender-smart solutions. This partnership facilitates sharing of experiences and good practices between member-companies, ultimately benefitting businesses, employees and communities. 

“The private sector remains the single most important engine exploring growth and raising living standards for all people – men and women, and creating more and better jobs for women is not only good for women, it’s good for business and it drives economic growth across the globe,” said Australian Deputy High Commissioner Victoria Coakley, speaking at the launch. 

“Here in Sri Lanka, stats show that once women are married and particularly when they have children, there’s quite a dramatic drop in their labour force participation. Sri Lanka, according to the IMF, can raise its Gross Domestic Product by as much as 20% in the long run, if it’s able to close the gender gap, which remains stubbornly low at 36% in the workforce. And I know that a lot of you here today are working hard to remedy that. 

“Platforms such as the SheWorks partnership create the space for businesses to share their experiences and good practices, to learn off one another and to implement changes within the organisations and to advocate for gender equality more broadly.

“The SheWorks Sri Lanka partnership goes beyond the 18 participating companies here today because it acts as an exemplar for companies across the island looking to improve their businesses via the introduction of fair, inclusive and diverse policies,” she added. 


99 commitments in 6 focus areas

IFC Sri Lanka Women in Work Employment Lead Aarthy Arunasalam shared that as a prerequisite to join the SheWorks Sri Lanka partnership, the companies were requested to make a minimum of three gender-smart commitments each, based on six focus areas:


  • Increase women’s business leadership
  • Ensure recruitment and retention of female talent in the workplace
  • Explore employer-supported childcare
  • Promote effective anti-sexual harassment mechanisms
  • Support women in the value chain as employees and entrepreneurs
  • Foster the company’s leadership and commitment to women’s employment as a smart business strategy 


However, several companies went beyond that requirement. “They made additional commitments, and now after a year, 99 commitments are in place, out of which 72% has been achieved or is in progress with expected completion by mid-2020,” she said. 


CEO panel discussion 

The CEO panel discussion that followed, centred on the six focus areas in the SheWorks program. The session titled ‘Putting the business case for workplace gender equality into practice’, was moderated by IFC Sri Lanka Women in Work Program Manager Carmen Niethammer, and featured a panel of business leaders: Jetwing Hotels Chairman Shiromal Cooray, SDB Bank Chairperson Samadanie Kiriwandeniya, Fairway Holdings Group CEO Imal Fonseka, John Keells Group President HR and Legal Dilani Alagaratnam and MAS Intimates CEO Suren Fernando, who were invited to share their insights and experiences as company heads dedicated to identifying and supporting gender-smart solutions in the workplace. 


Increase women’s business leadership

Q: Are you convinced of the business case on women’s leadership and where could you see that it makes a difference?

Shiromal: Women have two qualities that are very important for hospitality. I’m in the service sector, and empathy is one of the main things that is needed to service – women are naturally very emphatic, so that helps. Also, women have a higher emotional IQ so that too helps in those two sectors, particularly in hospitality. 

Samadanie: It brings a different perspective and experience to the table so the financial products can be tweaked to the realities of the lives of the women. Some of the timings of the meetings and the structuring of the product offers can take the women’s experience into consideration when you have more women on-board. I’m not saying that men don’t know this but men do not have some of those real hands-on experiences of how a certain product may or may not reach a specific segment, then we isolate 50% of the customer segment. 

Imal: Purely speaking from experience, I find that women tend to keep us very focussed particularly when we are at various discussions that can usually digress to talking about big matches, etc. 

Dilani: When we focus on the blue-collar worker especially in the context of more male-dominated businesses, at the factory level, we find that having women in that set up actually brings a lot of discipline to the organisation. They mind their p’s and q’s, for example, and there’s a lot of respect and that really adds to the organisation. 

Suren: We are an organisation that employs about 19,000 people, both locally and internationally; and almost 75% is female so we have a very strong business case. If you look at the products that we make the majority of them cater to lingerie and women’s sportswear; so in terms of product and customer we have a strong affinity to the female gender. 

And some of the newer innovative solutions that we are working on, again focus predominantly on providing solutions for women; so I think there is a very strong business case from a product and employee point of view. If you look at the organisation itself, at a leadership level we find having women in senior leadership positions will make better qualitative decisions and there is more diversity in opinion; so for us having women in leadership is not a nice thing that we want to do but we believe it is the right thing to do. 


Q:  Do you think that mandatory quota for women on the board is a good idea?

Shiromal: Initially, just to get the ball rolling, it’s a good idea maybe, but for a very short term because I think a woman should be on the board because of her capacity of ability, not by gender. So I’m against the quota in principle but I do agree that initially to make companies take notice of a woman and include the woman perhaps it’s good but it should be very short term, and not be compelled to have a woman just for the sake of having a woman. 

Samadanie: It is good to begin but you need to ensure that it’s not going to be only quota but the culture and other things are changed so that more women can naturally come on board rather than be picked through a quota; but also we need to be mindful on what would be the right size of the quota to make a difference.

Imal: We don’t believe in a quota system. We are in the construction business – all our site engineers are only men – only men apply, only men are looked for. When we looked at bringing women in, my colleagues and I had this discussion on whether we should set guidelines and say 25% of the new recruits have to be women, we decided not to – let’s give everyone an equal opportunity to come in and if there are women who are interested and do come in, let’s make everything possible to make sure she stays with us. 

Dilani: I do not believe in a quota. I think it does injustice to women. They should be up there because they are good for the job and they are required by that organisation to serve some purpose because at the end of the day it is not for the board to decide that I must be a woman, just for ticking the box; they must decide if it is good for the company. We must prepare the ground for them to be accepted as directors.

Suren: We also don’t believe in a quota system; the only thing I would like to add is data and research clearly show that companies that have strong female representation on boards, have proven to have better governance structures and are being seen as companies practising very high standards in terms of ethics and good governance; so for that reason alone I would be a strong advocate of having a certain number of women representation on a board, but whether it should be mandatory I wouldn’t be on board with that. 


Q:  Shiromal, you are doing a lot for women’s leadership in your company; you have many female general managers and you have this entire activity also in Jaffna. Are there different approaches to women’s leadership that one has to take depending on the different parts of the country? How does culture play into that? Any lessons learnt for companies that want to do something?

Shiromal: We have three hotels – two in Jaffna and one in Pottuvil in the eastern coast. In the east we just couldn’t get a single female to join. We have a program called the Jetwing Youth Development Program where before we set up a hotel, we go to that area and get about 100 girls and boys who just finished their O Levels or A Levels, and then train them, and we just couldn’t get anybody from the east coast. 

In Jaffna we had a similar problem but we worked with the Karainagar Vocational Training Institute and they managed to get us some parents from the area; they spent a lot of time talking to the parents, explaining to them what it really is. We took the parents to another hotel in Sigiriya, we showed them what it is to actually work in a hotel – they had no clue what it was. By doing that we changed the perception of the parents and through that there were lots of girls who joined and now it’s one of our very successful case studies. We have a lot of females who continue to work with us; and they are really shining examples – they are so passionate about it and they are super friendly. 


Ensure recruitment and retention of female talent in the workplace

Q:  Once you have them in, maybe there are also difficulties keeping women in the business. What do you find more challenging – getting them (women as employees) in or keeping them? 

Suren: For us it’s more to do with retention and I think the challenges that we have at various levels are slightly different.

Dilani: Retention would be a challenge when it comes to women; it depends again on the age group, what they are doing, etc., so you cannot generalise. 

Imal: From our perspective, attracting women to a construction site is very difficult; in the leisure site retention of women is difficult. 

Samadanie: I think recruitment of ‘men’ is an issue in the financial industry because there’s no inclusion of gender on that side; more educated and young girls are applying; so on that side recruitment is not a problem. Retention is a problem if you want to promote women for bigger responsibilities – if you allow women to just pass through the system and just be wherever they want to be in the way they want to package so that they can balance everything, that’s fine. But if you want to identify good women and promote them and ask them to get into new responsibilities and set them into the leadership track, then retention is a problem. 

Shiromal: Out of Colombo, recruitment is difficult for the tourism industry. After that, once they go beyond a point, retention is also difficult – after they get married and have children, then retention becomes a problem. 


Explore employer-supported childcare

Q:  There aren’t many childcare providers in the country. Why are employers not offering childcare? Is it the issue of cost/quality of childcare providers, parents’ hesitance because of the stigma attached to not taking care of their child themselves, or is it a challenge for the company to provide childcare for many different branches? What are the biggest issues faced by your companies? 

Imal: It costs us about Rs. 25,000 per child; from the second year onwards it’s Rs. 7,000 if it’s one child and Rs. 5,000 per child if it’s two children; that’s from the cost perspective, but the biggest challenge was finding good childcare professionals. We were very lucky in terms of being able to find the resource but I’m not confident if we were a bigger organisation with a bigger staff structure that we would’ve been able to find this kind of personnel – that would’ve been the challenge. But I must say our success rate in terms of my colleagues returning to work after maternity leave has been 100%.  



Q:  What do you do with the issue of parents not wanting to send their children to your childcare facility? Are they reluctant?

Imal: There is reluctance; people want childcare only if parents are on-site – that gives them the confidence; we do not provide childcare to parents who are on different sites. That is one of the biggest things about this whole insecurity of leaving their child somewhere; that is where this whole conflict comes between what your mother and mother-in-law thinks, that creates conflict at home and pressure, and that’s what then would have forced most of them to stay at home. 


Q:  How do you ensure fairness if not everybody has the benefit?

Imal: The thing is – the simple point is – do you try to get everything right or if you can do it why don’t you just go ahead and do it? If it’s something you can do just go ahead and do it. I know it’s not perfect – we all know it’s not perfect – lots of improvement needed, we learn from lots of people, in lots of other organisations who are doing it, we share our perspective with everyone. If giving is the right thing, I don’t think it’s worth the while waiting till every box is ticked – just go ahead, do it and then let’s take it from there.


Q:  Any advice to people in the audience who are thinking about employer-supported childcare?

Imal: The greatest thing for us is the fact that when we set about doing it, we just looked around at who else was doing it, went around, learnt from them and they were more than willing to teach us, took the best practices, made it suit our needs, and executed. So that’s the simplest thing I say; there’s no need to reinvent the wheel; look around and I’m sure you’ll find some things you can learn from each other. There are lots of different companies with different complexities and challenges that can actually help you design it. If you believe it just do it. 


Q:  MAS has many childcare facilities in the country. You had quantified the business case in Jordan. Any advice on employer-supported childcare?

Suren: It’s an interesting journey because we’ve been thinking about it for many years and it has been a requirement that has come during conversations with our joint consulting committees, even amongst the executives. A few years ago we opened a few crèches or childcare centres but the number of children that were enrolled were very few and we had to close them down; but for the last three or four years we have gotten a lot of parents – young mothers wanting to enrol their child in the childcare facility. Today we have about 10 of them running in our plants, including two overseas – one in Jordan and one in India, and it has been a great success story for us. 

The hesitation from the side of the management was we were very mindful of the responsibility that we are taking on board, plus we work with mostly international customers; so we took some time to set things up but after we decided to go ahead and launch it, it’s been a great success story for us. 

The labour turnover levels or the attrition levels and the absenteeism levels today of mothers who keep their children in the childcare centres is a quarter of the factory average; for that, we have to incur a cost of around Rs. 25,000 but having women on-board and working with us throughout that month certainly pays it off. So from the payback point of view it certainly has made business sense but more than that it’s the service you provide your employees which they value a lot today. 


Promote effective anti-sexual harassment mechanisms

Q:  Most companies in the SheWorks partnership have some sort of anti-sexual harassment mechanism; the question is, also from a business perspective, how we measure effectiveness of what we have out there. Dilani, John Keells has done a lot of work on anti-sexual harassment mechanisms both inside and outside the company. What’s the business case for you? Also from a lawyer’s perspective, tell us how you manage it across all your businesses. 

Dilani: Our business case is that we want to create a place of work which does not have any sort of harassment so that people can give their best at any organisation, so that they’re not held back.  

Across businesses, it’s not different because it’s ultimately the same thing – everybody understands when they’re being harassed, and it’s the same thing wherever but how you handle could be different. Though we have a general anti-sexual harassment policy, when it comes to actually looking at complaints, we have to tailor it to the requirement, depending on what is expected by that particular person.

And though we introduced our policy formally in 2008, we did some adjustments in 2017 – one was to provide a further mechanism of addressing such grievances, because there was a committee at the highest level (the group executive committee level) who sat when a complaint was made, from wherever, even a blue collar worker, but we felt later that it can sometimes be intimidating for some people; therefore we changed it slightly, so that with the guidance of the committee, at a business level itself some matters can be dealt with. 


Q:  Many of you also have anti-sexual harassment actions with third parties – triple markets like hotels, where for example, there may be guests who harass the maid. What are your current policies and challenges on that?

Samadanie: To me, having anti-sexual harassment mechanisms – it’s not legal or compliance – it’s basic human respect and basic dignity. If a male cannot respect a woman for who she is that’s very sad. It should not be a compliance issue or a legal issue – it should be taught at home, at schools and whenever possible, that males and females should respect each other. 

In the banking industry, most of the employees are more professional people who can usually assert themselves; and they are also very busy in the workplace; they are not in situations unless they are field staff, where direct physical harassment can happen. 

But being a gender-stereotyped culture, there are other types of sexual harassment that can happen. You need to create a diversity-inclusive culture and such policies rather than directly talking about sexual harassment as such and allow spaces for people to develop their leadership skills and professional skills so that you have a more non-discriminatory service approach and a work approach. We have it in the HR policies and disciplinary policies, and the culture promotes that kind of more professional approach. 

Suren: We were very strict in our comprehensive code of conduct that we launched a few years ago. When we look back, the time that it was launched people were happy because we had a formal launch, there was education, awareness, training, all of that, but still there was an element of apprehension and that apprehension came from ‘Would the leadership and the management really walk the talk – you have your policies and procedures, to what extent would this really be implemented?’. 

Three years or four years fast forward I think the confidence and the trust in the system that we have put in is much greater now because again in the last few years we had to unfortunately in some cases, make some very hard and painful decisions which were the right decisions, regardless of how important he or she is to the organisation, regardless of the criticality of the role that he or she plays, we have put a painstaking effort and after that the trust and confidence in the system that we have has really increased. 

So, just as much as the mechanism is important, the training and awareness is important. I believe the most important piece is the actual practice and demonstrating that you truly believe and have faith in the system that you put in. 



Support women in the value chain as employees and entrepreneurs

Q:  What is in it for you as a company to invest in the supply chain? Why should corporates be interested in the supply chain?

Suren: We realise it’s an important piece of the work that we do, and supporting women in the value chain as employees or entrepreneurs has also been something that we have promoted over the past years. Most of the women who work in organisations have also made progress in their lives and they’ve been able to make small investments; for example, they can lease or rent out a vehicle to the company, where it’s part of our transport system. 

So wherever possible, where we can provide them opportunities, yes they are employees but at the same time they can play with those boundaries and be a part of our supply chain in terms of adding service or value to be consciously encouraged and supported, because we see it as a mechanism where they become more dedicated to the organisation.  

Dilani: When it comes to the supply chain, something we do at the supply forums we have twice a year is we bring in suppliers and discuss what we can do going forward. We have been talking about the importance of bringing women into the organisation and value they would bring. We have shown them case studies and best practices; so they are just opening their minds to what they could possibly have in the future. 

Samadanie: Focussing on the value chain is not only related to women, in the way that we do it, but we realise after engaging with the community for about 40 years mainly working at the lower ends of the supply chain – the customer segments, we realise you cannot promote women or men in the SME sector as proper suppliers or value creators, unless they are properly linked with the market. 

We’ve been working in the bottom level for the last 40 years, developing the capacities of women, making their skills upgraded, providing them financial access, and we are talking about 500,000 women at reach, but we are realising that they are further and further getting scattered without knowing where they should pitch their businesses, and what value chains will remain in the next five years in the country. Even top level businesses are not very clear whether they will survive the competition in the market.

In that kind of scenario, as a financial institution, when we are investing and supporting, like the last 10 years, when we are talking about creating women-owned businesses, we are talking about providing just a small microfinance package and bringing some skills and training and allowing them to start some business. But what is the guarantee that these businesses will last the next five years? Without that guarantee how as a responsible financial institution will we guide these women to drop some of the work that they do and really focus on some business and take a risk as an entrepreneur when they would not be able to survive and they would be more indebted. 

Engaging a larger number of women who have started some businesses with the bigger market leaders is therefore a very critical thing; we are trying to engage with some of the SMEs; we can’t only work through the financial models in a certain level in a supply chain; we have to work in all different levels, in all types of relationships. 


Foster the company’s leadership and commitment to women’s employment as a smart business strategy 

Q:  Were you always a gender leader or did something happen that made you decide to step up and become one – taking the voice of women forward? 

Shiromal: I went to an all-girls school – a convent – so I didn’t really have to do anything different – we were all equal. Once I started working I realised that one has to listen to oneself if one is to be taken seriously. There were times when I was at a conference table, talking to the other industry leaders and I would say something and nobody would listen to me. Same thing is said by a man at the table and they say, “Oh, fantastic idea!” I used to think, “Come on – I said it!” Things like that happened in my work life and I was still young but as I got older I realised it was something common. 

My first two jobs were not in my family company so I had the experience of working in a non-family company. After I joined my family company it was much easier. I know a lot of problems that females go through when they’re working. It was a series of things that happened that made me realise that I need to take a stand and I need to talk on behalf of others as well. 

Samadanie: I grew up with two very strong development actors in the same household – my father and my mother. These two activists got together to create a more empowered rural community in Sri Lanka and each time they finish a session, at home (I grew up in a family of five girls) all the girls and the mother are in the kitchen. Then my father always says ‘we give all these chances for women and they don’t come up’. And my mother says ‘we did things but you don’t recognise it’.

I wanted to study why these two nice efforts don’t meet eye to eye. This made me do my masters in women leadership. That is when I saw the real reasons for the barriers for women leadership and barriers for normative structures so I decided it’s high time to actually come out and try to change structures because that matters.

Imal: My wife is more educated than I am. I decided to give up expat life and come back home because I didn’t feel it was right for my wife to follow me from country to country when I get transferred. I was hoping she could pursue her career too, but when we came back here and had kids, etc., it came to a situation where the more capable parent had to be at home so she made the sacrifice to stay at home and I pursued my career. That’s when I thought, maybe it’s too late for my wife but I can make a difference for others.

Dilani: I have the luxury of working with companies like John Keells where I was not made to feel that I was a woman. My voice counted every time; I never really felt any issue and didn’t really think there was any problem. I grew with the momentum this took and the data I saw. 10 years ago we didn’t have this kind of session; we didn’t talk about this; it was there but now it is brought to the fore and being discussed. So when things are being discussed and supported by data, then you stop and look. It is then that I decided I would do something towards that. 

Suren: I used to sit at the programs that our company organised, seeing some of the achievements especially at a team member level, looking at the amount of work that they do. We are in management but they have a job with many hours at the workplace, with production targets to meet and then they go home and look after their children, and some of them are single mothers. Despite all of that, during the weekends some of them have started a cottage industry, bought three-wheelers and have another source of revenue.

These stories really inspire you and in terms of what you achieved verses what they have done, make you feel small and you really want to make an impact in their lives, or at least at work – if you can create the right, safe, secure environment, give them an opportunity to go up in life, create those career paths for them – for me that was the moment that I realised that we need to support and come on board for this cause. 

The panel discussion ended on that note, having shared the lessons, best practices and success stories gathered during their journey, inspiring other companies to follow their lead. 

Pix by Ruwan Walpola