Closing Sri Lanka’s gender gaps in the workforce

Thursday, 16 November 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

  • World Bank report says getting more Lankan women to work is crucial to achieving country’s growth and equity goals 

Removing barriers to women’s paid work will encourage more Sri Lankan women to participate in the workforce, a new World Bank report has found. 

Safe childcare and transportation, early orientation to career development to better prepare girls to enter and remain in the workforce and implementing gender equal labour laws and practices are among the recommendations of the report. 

The report ‘Getting to Work: Unlocking Women’s Potential in Sri Lanka’s Labour Force’ notes that despite steady economic growth, the number of women participating in Sri Lanka’s workforce has declined to 36% in 2016 from 41% in 2010. Sri Lankan women, especially younger ones, do not sufficiently acquire marketable skills, face higher unemployment rates and can expect to receive lower wages than men. 

“Getting women to work is not just about supporting human rights; it’s about smart economics,” said Idah Pswarayi-Riddihough, the World Bank Country Director for Sri Lanka and the Maldives. 

“Lifting the barriers to women’s participation in the workforce will not only help Sri Lanka realise its economic potential and build on its several achievements, it will also increase the equitable sharing of the development benefits.” 

The report points to three factors that impede women’s participation in the paid workforce. 

First, marriage, childrearing and related household chores that fall disproportionately on women deter their participation in labour markets. Marriage drastically lowers women’s odds—by 26 percentage points—of becoming a paid employee, while for men it slightly increases the odds, by 2.5 percentage points. 

Second, women are not entering educational fields or acquiring the skills that are sought by employers, particularly in the private sector. Third, gender discrimination in job search, hiring and promotion keeps women from obtaining high-skill and management jobs, where men continue to dominate. 

Going forward, the report recommends multipronged strategies to help women gain employment and then continue to thrive in the workplace. 

Starting young, career development initiatives can help girls acquire the education, skills and confidence to pursue courses, particularly in the STEM fields of general education or in technical and vocational education and training (TVET) programs that teach non-traditional skills, which are in demand from prospective employers.

Once women are at work, increasing the availability of high-quality childcare services, improving access to part-time work and maternity leave, and addressing socio-physical constraints on women’s mobility through safe transportation and telecommuting are essential to helping them remain in the workforce. 

Workplaces must embrace gender equity in labour legislation and non-discriminatory policies, including zero tolerance for sexual harassment. By undertaking ethical branding initiatives and women-centred training programs, the private sector could help expand women’s share of employment and firm ownership in emerging industries.

“Addressing the many issues that keep women from joining and succeeding in Sri Lanka’s workforce will require concerted efforts,” said World Bank Senior Social Development Specialist Jennifer Solotaroff, the author of the report. 

“Various stakeholders — ranging from relevant government ministries, to education providers, to public sector and especially private sector employers — must use their comparative strengths to help expand women’s options for productive, safe and fairly compensated work.”