Breaking the Gender Gridlock in Sri Lanka’s Private Sector

Sarah Twigg, Women in Work (WiW)
August 26, 2022

Across workplaces in Sri Lanka, women are taking their seat at the table.

Aroshi Nanayakkara starts her day as an independent non-executive member of the board of Sampath Bank – one of Sri Lanka’s leading private banks– while Nadija Tambiah serves as the President of the Group Executive Committee of John Keells Holdings PLC – the country’s largest conglomerate.

Representational change is also slowly taking root, with young women joining industries previously dominated by men.

At the Colombo Port, Ayesha Abeyratne dons her hard hat to go out for crane inspections. She is the first woman mechanical engineer at South AsiaGateway Terminals – a top rated container terminal in the country. Three hundred and thirty-five kilometers away from the Colombo, the commercial capital of Sri Lanka, S. Pirashanthy sets out her tools to fix a sewing machine at MAS Holdings – one of the largest design-to-delivery apparel manufacturers in South Asia.

One program helped drive this success – Women in Work.

From enabling digital financial inclusion to breaking barriers in women’s employment, Women in Work Sri Lanka (WiW) – a partnership between IFC and the Australian government – has been a significant force in leading SriLanka’s private sector towards gender equality.

The Australian Government is strongly committed to being at the forefront of efforts to empower women and girls and promote gender equality. As for IFC, gender is at the heart of the organisation’s strategic priorities across the world. This shared vision is what led to the inception of WiW in2017.

A Multipronged Approach

While Sri Lankan women are as (or in many cases more) educated than men, only around 1 in 3 women of working age are employed –less than half that of men. The country’s female labour force participation has stagnated between 30-35 percent for two decades. For the country to move forward and inclusively grow, this needs to change.

This is where WiW fits in.

The five-and-half year, AUD 13 million partnership is IFC’s largest, standalone country-based gender program and is designed to close gender gaps in Sri Lanka’s private sector while improving business performance.

The program has been able to touch every corner ofSri Lanka – from the corporate sector to small businesses to regulators and policy makers – helping create lasting impacts in achieving gender equality.

By showcasing the need for investing in women as employees, WiW has helped enhance women’s participation in the private sector labour force. SheWorks Sri Lanka– a two-year peer learning platform – brought together 15 leading companies, collectively employing over 170,000 people to create more equal and respectful workplaces, while boosting business productivity. This resulted in 12,000 more women being employed and a one-third increase in the share of women on directors boards of participating companies. The program helped many women like Ayesha break gender stereotypes and be employed in non-traditional jobs. In addition, the IFC-DFAT partnership has helped promote good corporate governance, paving the way for progressive quotas for women on the boards of companies listed on the ColomboStock Exchange. The share of women on boards in Sri Lanka’s 30largest listed companies indicates more than a 50 percent increase from2018-2021.

Increasing access to financial and non-financial services for women and women-owned MSMEs is also a target of WiW. One important advancement in this regard was the launch of Sri Lanka’s firstNational Financial Inclusion Strategy in 2021. The strategy took a gender-sensitive approach, and helps ensure women business owners are part of the national financial inclusion drive, opening up new and better opportunities. WiW also supported financial institutions such as NationalDevelopment Bank and Commercial Bank of Sri Lanka to develop women’s banking strategies, enabling more women to access the types of banking services they need. The program is also helping increase Sri Lankan women's access to insurance – for the benefit of themselves and their families.

WiW is also helping strengthen women’s participation in the supply chains of bigger companies. The partnership with Ceylon BiscuitsLimited, one of Sri Lanka’s largest fast-moving goods companies, is helping increase women’s participation as distributors and retailers of their products, and building their business capacity to ensure the long-term success of their businesses.

It’s a fact that no country or economy can prosper if half of their population is not empowered. The mission of WiW is also the same – with cutting-edge solutions, we want to bring more Aroshis, Nadijas and Ayeshas to the forefront, helping achieve more inclusive growth.

It is time to level the playing field in Sri Lanka– and with Australia’s tremendous support, WiW is at the forefront.