By Sumi Moonesinghe
At the age of 17 I decided to enter what was hitherto a man’s world , by entering the Faculty of Engineering, University of Colombo , at the behest of my math and physics teacher —Mignon Lokubalasooriya , at Devi Balika Vidyalaya, Colombo 8.
I was the only girl in a batch of 104, and obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Electrical Engineering. There were 500 boys in the whole faculty! I am eternally indebted to my teacher for guiding my destiny.
I then proceeded to the Faculty of Electronics, University of Southampton in the UK and obtained a Master’s Degree in Electronics. And once again I was the only woman, in all the faculties of engineering such as aeronautical, chemical, petroleum, civil mechanical and electrical, etc.
I then proceeded to Singapore as an expatriate lecturer in the Singapore Polytechnic to teach Colour television. Once again the only woman lecturer in the entire Faculty of Engineering.
During this entire period of 12 years I never encountered any glass ceilings or sexual harassment, nor did I ever ask for any concessions as a woman.
I was very confident, and learnt to handle sticky situations tactically. Everyone considered me as one of them and took care of me when the necessity arose.
I remember very vividly, once when I was on the main Peradeniya Gampola road doing surveying practicals in the hot sun, not even wearing a hat, when late Prof. E.O.E. Perera the then Dean of the Faculty of Engineering passing by, stopped the car to find out how I was doing. I never felt I should ask for any concessions from him as a woman.
I returned to Sri Lanka in 1974, and joined the Maharaja organisation as a director of a subsidiary company. I had no idea about business I was only a professional engineer. It was my late husband who taught me business, and shared my responsibilities at home, to become a very successful businesswoman.
My two bosses Ms. Maharaja and Raja Mahendran gave me all the encouragement and support and gave me a free hand to run the company.
I was the Founder/Managing Director of New Zealand Milk Products (now Fonterra Brands), selling Anchor milk powder/butter, etc. imported from New Zealand.
When I was expecting my second daughter, my gynaecologist, famous Dr. Henry Nanayakkara, very bluntly told me, “If you want this child, you have to stay in bed lying down, not even sitting down, for nine months!” I then decided, I am not ill, so I can manage this company from my bed at home. A very bold decision as there were no laptops, android phones but only telex and fax machines.
My two bosses were so kind they allowed me this enormous concession. And the company performed extremely well. None of my stakeholders in the business knew I was operating from my bed at home, thanks to my extremely efficient secretary June Jayakody.
In view of this performance they allowed me to work half a day, allowing me to be with my two daughters when they returned from school to help them with their studies. Both girls have excelled in their studies, not affected by a busy working mother!
Finally the company reached its pinnacle recording 70% market share, for Anchor and Ratthi milk powder brands, when it was sold to the New Zealand Dairy Board and I retired at the age of 51.
All I am trying to get across to these young women is that this so-called glass ceiling is imaginary, if only we women single-mindedly concentrate on achieving our vision and mission and work very hard to achieve the end goal.
Of course I was very lucky to have had a very caring husband ( Susil Moonesinghe) and a younger sister who helped me to juggle between running a very large business, managing my home, attending to my two daughters’ studies, and supporting my husband in his political journey as well.
I learnt to do five things at the same time and earned a reputation as a poor listener with a very short span of concentration! And a tough woman! I was gifted with this ability to be able to handle many things simultaneously.
So I call upon all heads of corporates to please understand the juggling women are expected to do, and allow them flexi hours, give them a laptop and android phone, and extended maternity leave and to work from home.
Today with advanced technology, you can conduct your business from anywhere, you only need a lap top and an android phone.
I call upon all women to be bold, confident and learn to juggle, and make your bosses feel comfortable that you will achieve the objectives laid down by them, from home, and single-mindedly concentrate on achieving! Then you will never encounter a glass ceiling.
Good luck! Every day is an International Women’s Day!