Tue. Nov 24th, 2020

Females far less than 10% in highest corporate positions

By Madhusha Thavapalakumar

About three weeks ago, history was made when Kamala Harris became the Vice President Elect of the United States as she will be the first woman to hold the second highest position in the US when she assumes duties in January next year. 

“Until men step up and do their fair share of chores around the household, women will bear this entire burden on their own” CA Sri Lanka – Women Empowerment and Leadership Development Committee Chairperson Aruni Rajakarier

Soon after her victory, many local netizens began claiming kinship to Harris and dug her ancestral roots, looking for a possible connection to Sri Lanka due to her South Asian heritage, in order to prove once again that Sri Lankan women are capable of achieving greater heights. Another section of local netizens pulled the evergreen trump card: “Sri Lanka elected the world’s first female prime minister in 1960”, who is Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

This was an attempt to prove to the Western world that Sri Lanka is “far ahead” of the West in terms of gender equality while conveniently forgetting that Sirimavo Bandaranaike – and her daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga who served as the fifth Executive President of Sri Lanka –  were the first and last women to hold the highest positions in the Sri Lankan Government. Unfortunately, leaving aside the presidency or premiership, no other woman has got close to even the other top positions of Government. 

According to political analysts, despite inexperience, Sirimavo Bandaranaike rose to power mainly due to a wave of sympathy votes stemming from her husband and former Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s assassination supported by her ties with ruling elites at the time. It had little to do with gender equality or women empowerment, and while we pretend we are ahead of the Western world, global indexes tell another story as we are yet to surpass even our South Asian peers in this regard. 

According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2020 published by the World Economic Forum, Sri Lanka is the only South Asian country out of seven selected countries that has female representation of less than 20% in its Parliament. Beyond Parliament, the situation gets worse. Female representation in Sri Lankan boardrooms is far less than 10%, keeping us behind India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, according to data. For a country where 52% of the population is female and over 90% of them are literate and a little over 35% of them are engaged in the workforce, male dominance in company boardrooms is quite striking. Female representation at senior or even mid-level corporate jobs is not impressive either. 

So where did Sri Lanka go wrong? Why did it fail to capitalise on producing the world’s first female prime minister and ensure gender equality at the decision-making level? What are the factors that are holding back women’s career progression in Sri Lanka? The Sunday Morning Business decided to investigate in this week’s article. 

Women in Sri Lankan boardrooms

Despite representation of women in the corporate world having doubled over the past decade, female representation in boardrooms has long been very low or negligible globally. Last year, a study by Egon Zehnder, a global leadership advisory firm based in London, found that three-quarters of all boardroom jobs are still going to male candidates. 

In terms of Sri Lanka, the number of females in company boardrooms across the country is about 8% while 92% is male, according to research conducted by the International Financial Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group, together with the Colombo Stock Exchange (CSE). 

What’s more, a number of the women in boardrooms include a considerable number of female company secretaries who play the role of assisting directors with important administrative tasks and monitoring companies’ compliance with the law. Unlike directors of a board, company secretaries are not responsible for the management of the company, yet they are considered a member of the board. This sometimes makes it easier for companies to brag that there is female representation in the boardroom whilst, in reality, a company secretary ranks lower than a board director in terms of importance and decision-making power. 

Women’s career progression 

Why cannot women keep climbing up the corporate hierarchical ladder? Plenty of debates on this question have taken place over the years. The Institute of Chartered Accountants of Sri Lanka (CA Sri Lanka) in an interview with The Sunday Morning Business earlier this year said that failing to give women incentive to stay in the talent pipeline can pose several pitfalls on the Sri Lankan economy, including the increase in dependency of the working population. Taking a holistic look at women’s career path makes it clear that while most barriers are external, there are some that are also internal. 

Work-life balance 

In developing countries, particularly in the Asian region, women have the dual responsibility of managing work and household duties, thereby raising challenges in maintaining work-life balance. The work-life conflict impacts women’s career advancement and job performance, and if reached at its peak, the ultimate result is women either drop out of their preferred career path, leaving behind all those years of progression, or opt for a slower progressing or secondary career. Companies are often less accommodative in helping women strike this work-life balance, according to extensive research done on this subject.

CA Sri Lanka – Women Empowerment and Leadership Development Committee Chairperson Aruni Rajakarier said this can be attributed to a lack of contribution by men when it comes to unpaid work in households, leading women to bear the entire burden.

“Usually men think that they can go home, put their feet up on the couch, and watch TV, and this is the sum total of their contribution to the unpaid work in the household. Until men step up and do their fair share of chores around the household, women will bear this entire burden on their own,” she said.

These challenges have resulted in women choosing not to have children and getting married late or not getting married at all, due to disadvantages they would face in the workplace.

She went on to state that women do not even have to be married to face challenges, as most unmarried women in Sri Lanka are tasked by their siblings to leave their jobs and solely look after their ageing parents.

Rajakarier stated that this is not going to change until women stop being hesitant towards having the conversations they need to have with their spouses and children. She quoted a study done in Canada that assigned monetary value to the unpaid house worker, which showed that it ranged from 210-318 billion Canadian dollars, which is over 35% of the country’s GDP.

Masculine job roles

While entry-level jobs such as accounting, teaching, and public relations are easily available for women in Sri Lanka, boardrooms are occupied by men, leaving little or no room to enter for women. 

We all have come across plenty of advertisements in job posting sites where the employer would prefer a female for the role of a receptionist and male for the role of manager or marketing personnel.

However, even if employed at a lower level in the company, women’s chances of climbing the corporate ladder are limited as men have an advantage over women as they are viewed as being more independent in their work – for example, if the job role requires a lot of travel.

In addition to this, night shift work or companies that require employees to work overnight are a big “no, no” for most women in Sri Lanka due to various reasons including work-life conflict.

Key findings of a study by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) in Sri Lanka on the challenges and experiences of women in non-standard work, or to be precise night work, revealed that in addition to work-life conflict, major reasons for women to avoid the non-standard work were unreliability and safety concerns of night-time transport when facilities were not provided by employers; gender-based harassment on the road and in public transport, such as cat calling and whistling; and unwanted comments on physical appearance and societal disapproval, especially in the supermarket sector, where the nature of work is not as appreciated and respected in contrast to, say, the nursing home industry.

Sexism, sexual harassment, and bullying

According to a study done by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership of the King’s College of London, a more severe issue associated with male-dominated organisational cultures was that of sexism and, in many cases, sexual harassment and bullying. Women working in construction, as retail managers, and as pilots described cultures in which sexist assessments of their competence from co-workers or clients affected self-esteem and their ability to progress.

The study adds that for ethnic minority women, racist or religious stereotypes sit alongside gender stereotypes. At the more extreme ends were cultures in which sexual harassment was common, with respondents feeling they had to turn a blind eye. While some women had exited organisations in situations where bullying and sexual harassment had become intolerable, much more common was a resigned acceptance – “In short, they considered that a woman-hostile culture was a price worth paying for working in a predominantly male environment, especially where they were able to progress into managerial roles,” the study adds. 

In the Sri Lankan context, the country has been always lacking in safety for women, be it a 65-year-old or a five-year-old, as proven by news reports, studies, and research. According to a 2015 report published by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Sri Lanka, 90% of the female respondents were affected by sexual harassment on public transportation at least once in their lifetime, yet only 4% had reported such incidents to the Police. There have been 142 cases of rape, 42 serious sexual abuse cases, and 54 cases of child abuse reported within the first 15 days of 2020. 

Rajakarier stated that society needs to understand that women come with their own set of challenges, especially when it comes to things like sexual harassment.

“Our biological structure is different to that of a man’s, therefore we have more challenges than men. For a girl to miss school four days of the month because she does not want to be laughed at makes it tough to compete.”

Added Covid challenges

In the context of Sri Lanka, the prevailing pandemic situation has disproportionately affected female employment as companies were cutting down their workforce, which means people at the bottom of the corporate ladder were the victims. In most cases, the bottom level of the corporate hierarchy were women who were struggling to make it to the next level, according to sources. Their return to work will depend mostly on the strength of Sri Lanka’s economic recovery and the wider effect on specific industries.

With work-from-home (WFH) being adopted on the whole more or less, a higher number of workers including women are opting for this option as it provides flexible schedules which facilitate them to accomplish their work at any time. While this technological comfort has made the life of working professionals much easier, it has deteriorated the quality of human life more than expected. Women are seen working longer hours and attending long work calls, thereby facing more stress, whilst also comforting the crying child and taking care of an ageing parent.

“Earlier, women were in a situation where they took care of household responsibilities before leaving for work, and did the same after coming home. Now, they have the whole family at home, including elders and kids, to take care of,” The Indian Express stated recently. 

WFH can be successfully executed only if the supervisors and peers are mindful in ensuring work-life boundaries are not breached.

Asian peers are ahead of us

As mentioned earlier, female representation in Sri Lankan boardrooms is comparatively lower than many of our South Asian peers including India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Even though India has not majorly evolved in this context, it is slowly and surely progressing in accommodating more women in its boardrooms. As of March 2020, women accounted for about 17% of board directors in Nifty 500 companies, top 500 companies based on full market capitalisation. This is a year-over-year growth of 2%. 

Meanwhile, Bangladesh has been showing good progress in closing the gender gap in its country. According to data received from stock exchanges, in 2018, 18% of the directors on company boards in Bangladesh were women and this was higher than that of India at the time. Women’s representation had increased from 17% in 2016 to 18% in 2018, in Bangladeshi boardrooms. As of 2018, of the 300 companies listed on the Dhaka Stock Exchange, 10 had women Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) – up from five the previous year. In 2017, a report surveyed 550 listed corporations on the Pakistan Stock Exchange, and for every nine male directors, there was only one female director.

What should be done? (main HL)

Sri Lanka has not made any considerable progress in increasing female representation in company boardrooms, whilst some progress has been made in increasing women employment – to be specific, in the Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) sector. Rajakarier stated that the Sri Lankan Government was encouraging companies to ensure at least 30% female participation in their boardrooms in 2020. However, this is voluntary.

Since women as directors in boardrooms have been proven the world over to encourage promotion of women into managerial positions, improve company performance to a greater level, and benefit gender diversity, Sri Lanka should take stringent steps to increase female representation in boardrooms.

As IPS suggests, risks and inefficiencies associated with travelling to work in the night or even in the daytime have to be addressed by increasing the frequency and reliability of public transport facilities.

Furthermore, strict regulations should safeguard women from harassment in public transport and on the road. Legislation and monitoring mechanisms should be tightened to improve working conditions and facilities to ensure that workers are not exploited in night shift work.

Harvard Business Review says a company board should have at least three women directors to successfully change the dynamics of a boardroom. The talent of a female has to be given utmost priority when considering senior level appointments or promotions instead of putting political recommendations and kinship ties as eligibility requirements. 

In order to remove some of the physical and psychological barriers to women’s career progression in private industry, a major attitudinal shift has to be made. Change will not come instantly, but over time, as society realises the importance of increasing women’s roles in the boardrooms across Sri Lanka.

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By Editor

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