In Sri Lanka’s latest employment data, unemployment had shrunk marginally to 4.1% but women remain inadequately represented in the formal workforce. As the country eyes stronger growth, it will find that making structural changes in the labour force is essential, especially to encourage more women into the workforce.
In Sri Lanka women are twice as likely to be unemployed as their male counterparts and, at 6.1%, the figure is nearly 2% higher than the national average. An estimated 5.2 million women are currently without jobs.
The latest data by the Census and Statistics Department estimated the economically-active population at about 8.3 million in the first quarter, of which 5.26 million or 63.3% are males and 3.05 million or only 36.7% are females. Out of the economically inactive population of 7.06 million, 24.2% are males and a staggering 75.8% are females. These numbers have hardly changed over the last three years, suggesting deep structural problems within a job market unable or uninterested in absorbing more women. This is in stark contrast to other Asian nations, with Bangladesh at 58%, Malaysia at 44%, Nepal at 80%, Singapore at 54%, Thailand at 64%, China at 64%, Cambodia at 79% and Vietnam at 73%.
Sri Lanka clearly has a large untapped reservoir of female manpower that could be utilised for the development of the country, while empowering women and benefitting society as a whole. But such an effort requires a huge adjustment from employers and female employees alike.
In Sri Lanka, girls outnumber their male counterparts at secondary level education, indicating a dedication to gender equality across the social spectrum. However, this has not translated into equitable employment opportunities or wage parity between men and women.
Allowances also have to be made for women employed in Sri Lanka’s agriculture sector, which employs nearly 34% of the workforce but rarely at a formal level. The prevalence of low incomes in farming also means fewer women have the opportunity to enter the formal workforce unless they are pushed to the lower end of the earning spectrum and have to opt for employment overseas.
The strong levels of migration to be employed in formal jobs, family responsibility and social constraints are among the challenges in getting more women into the formal workforce. The same Government figures indicate that education and skills do not necessarily help females secure employment – on the contrary, they could result in a lifetime of frustrations.
Currently, services and industry function at four or five times the productivity of agriculture in terms of GDP contribution but they fail to pay more than twice the average income earned from agriculture. This means there is less incentive for women to move from rural to urban areas, especially since they have additional ties of family.
Trends of women seeing employment in non-traditional industries must be enthusiastically encouraged, especially when they reach child bearing age, so that they are given the flexibility to continue being part of the formal workforce. Human resource is a key bargaining chip to attract investment and it is imperative that the Government and the private sector find ways to attract more women into skills-based jobs as that is the most sustainable economic growth path.
Since 52% of the population is made up of women, it is all the more necessary to improve their skills, as it also filters down to the next generation. A woman employed means a healthier, happier and better educated family and by extension country. Economic growth demands investment. Let us start with the women.