The International Finance Corporation (IFC) Advisory Solutions Director Mary Porter Peschka recently visited Sri Lanka to meet with clients, partners and representatives of the IFC. One of the key missions of her visit to the island was to kick-off the Women in Work program – a four-year program designed to support women entrepreneurs and equip businesses with strategies to create more private-sector employment and business opportunities, as well as increased access to finance for women.
On her visit, she also drove home some truths about women’s participation in the labour force and the impact it could have on the wellbeing of an economy. The World Economic Forum estimated that it could take as many as 170 years to close the global gender gap. According to Peschka, this is time that we simply don’t have at our disposal; and with labour shortages in several sectors, Sri Lanka especially needs to boost women’s participation.
Globally, women’s labour force participation has stagnated and fallen from 57% in 1990 to 55% in 2013. Women remain half as likely as men to have full-time wage jobs. The credit gap for formal women-owned small and medium-sized enterprises is estimated at about $300 billion globally.
Only about 34% of women are part of Sri Lanka’s formal workforce, even though women make up an estimated 52% of the country’s population. Unemployment rates are nearly double for women and significantly higher than the 4.2% national average.
However, research suggests that raising the rate of women’s labour force participation by 15 percentage points over current rates will add more than one million workers to the labour market each year.
While successful on several development indicators, Sri Lanka has the 20th largest gender gap in labour force participation globally, which impedes the country’s growth and equity.
Clearly there is a deep need to empower women and increase their chances for employment and entrepreneurship, especially at the grassroots level. This is also relevant in the spheres of technology usage and financial inclusion.
In order for meaningful change to take place, policymakers have to incorporate ICT as well as gender and development into their existing programs. They would have to put in long-term plans to equip women to learn a varying list of skills while enhancing women’s employment in the private sector by working with the private sector to demonstrate the business case for investing in women as employees.
Increasing access to financial and non-financial services for women and women-owned MSMEs will also be crucial.
To help address low female labour force participation, the World Bank says civil society organisations can promote and advocate for women to access part time work, maternity leave and childcare services in an effort to eliminate associated stigma.
Such focused policies are needed to not just foster growth but make it more sustainable. The Government’s role in facilitating this change is crucial, as they have to support change by implementing strong policies. In a country where women already play such a pivotal role in bringing in much-needed foreign earnings, the lack of financial and non-financial support they receive in other areas is at times appalling.
Sustainable development cannot be achieved without the equal distribution of opportunities and resources for all, regardless of gender. It is therefore essential that they have the same opportunity as any to determine their own course and to support their families, communities and countries.