Asia-Pacific today is a true engine of growth in the world—a region that has barely tapped its potential to develop, invest, and innovate. But as the region speeds ahead, the dynamics of its workforce, one that was predominantly male in the past, is also seeing rapid evolution. Over the last few decades, the social and economic contributions of women have increased substantially, enhancing Asia’s growth and lifting people out of poverty.
Compared with its regional counterparts, Sri Lanka as a nation had an early start toward gender equality. It was the first country to use universal adult franchise1, and in 1960, it became the first nation to elect a woman as the prime minister. However, despite Sri Lanka’s advances in participatory democracy and its continued economic growth over the years, today its women are struggling to achieve parity in work and society.
Although steps are being made to close the gap, the participation of women in the labour force has fallen over the past decade—a trend that may be an unfortunate by-product of rising household incomes. Persistent challenges facing women in the country include the difficulties of juggling family responsibilities with paid work, traditional attitudes that women belong primarily in the home, limited access to finances, poor maternity and paternity leave and shared parenting benefits, and inadequate skills for the modern labour market.
Equality translates to economic growth
But despite the complex and long-term effort required to advance women’s equality, the need for it is imperative, not only from a moral and social perspective but also for its considerable growth dividend. Reaching gender parity would boost the collective GDP of the Asia-Pacific region by $4.5 trillion annually by 2025—or the equivalent of adding an economy the size of Austria and Germany combined every year—according to new research from the McKinsey Global Institute. In advancing women’s equality, there is opportunity for all countries, with Sri Lanka’s 14% increase running higher than the 12% average in the region.
The large opportunity comes from three main sources: raising the female-to-male ratio of labour-force participation, increasing the number of hours women work, and growing the number of women working in higher-productivity sectors. In addition, to render more gender equality at work, it is important to address the societal norms that contribute to gender inequality.
Government commitment and advances
Even though there is still much to do, there have already been notable advances. Last year, the government made various national commitments, which include an elaboration on the National Action Plan to Address Sexual and Gender-based Violence, a dedicated chapter on women’s rights in the Human Rights Action Plan, and the introduction of the National Framework for Women-headed Households.
These activities, which are slated to be rolled out in the next few years, are important to help shift social attitudes about the role of women in society and work. Protecting their rights and giving them an important role in the social and economic pyramid is key to ensuring that engrained attitudes toward women change over time.
Boosting women’s participation in the labour force, and ensuring they are well placed to be represented in key matters, will help the economy. Currently, women account for half the combined population of Asia-Pacific but contribute 36% of GDP. In Sri Lanka, women account for only 34% of the labour force and 29% of the contributions to the economy—one of the lowest in the region.
To address this, the Government introduced a quota in 2016: in local public institutions, 25% of seats are to be reserved for women, ensuring an improved female representation in the public sector. This year, 26 top female professionals were also given the opportunity to voice their opinions and represent the needs of their gender ahead of the 2019 Budget.
Female representation in business leadership
More needs to be done to address the underrepresentation of women in business leadership. In Asia–Pacific, there are only 25 women for every 100 men in leadership positions, which is lower than the global average of 40. This is even more dire in Sri Lanka, where women have the lowest political representation in the region, with 17 women for every 100 men.
Thankfully, both the Government and private corporations within the country are stepping up efforts to drive change. An example of a private-sector institution leading the charge is local lingerie company MAS Holdings, which started the Woman Go Beyond program to prepare women to take on leadership positions within the organisation. Programs are designed to build knowledge as well as technical and soft skills, and include English-language training.
Last, as Sri Lanka moves toward improvements in gender parity, an important step would be to improve women’s access to digital technology. The Sri Lanka Export Development Board’s (EDB) SheTrades initiative is a move in the right direction.
The web and mobile application, which was launched by the International Trade Centre and is being championed by the EDB, will give local women entrepreneurs a platform to connect with global markets around the world.
In the same vein, Monash University in Australia has partnered with the Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration to develop a course to assist women entrepreneurs to grow their businesses and benefit from the incorporation of technology.
Overall, though the path is steep, it is encouraging to see the public, private, and social sectors make positive changes together. Sri Lanka once led the way in empowering its women, and must continue to do so now, or risk compromising the opportunity to forge an exciting new future and an ever-greater role on the world stage.
As the country continues to advance, women should and must play an equal part—a gap in the narrative that many leaders are now recognising. Now is the time for Sri Lanka to step up efforts to accelerate progress toward gender parity and to harness its power for growth and the well-being of society.
(The writer is the Managing Partner of McKinsey & Company in Sri Lanka, based in Colombo.)
1Universal adult franchise means that the right to vote should be given to all adult citizens without the discrimination of caste, class, color, gender, or religion.