Working women of Sri Lanka dealing with brick walls and glass ceilings

By Dilshani Samaraweera

With increasing numbers of women entering the private sector, Sri Lankan companies need to become more gender sensitive, says the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Employers Federation of Ceylon (EFC).

The latest study commissioned by the ILO and the EFC shows that public expenditure on education is under utilised due to gender bias and stereotyping of women. The study – Beyond Glass Ceilings and Brick Walls; Gender at the Workplace, authored by Maithree Wickramasinghe and Dr Wijaya Jayatilaka - identifies various forms of gender bias in Sri Lankan companies.

It seems not a lot has changed for women as far as getting ahead in the work force.

For instance men have higher chances of being recruited into some types of employment, although they may not always be better at the job. Men are also more frequently promoted to the top but not always based on their track record for better performance or better decision making abilities. Many other, more subtle methods of bias are also observed. As a result, although more and more women are joining the private sector, women are mostly concentrated in the lower rungs and are kept in place, through what the study metaphorically terms, ‘brick walls’ and ‘glass ceilings’. The net result of such gender bias is that companies are not getting the best out of educated human resources.

“Why this word glass ceiling? Glass ceiling is a term coined in the 1970s in the US to describe the invisible artificial barriers. All the subtle things that keep a woman from putting herself forward, from taking a little bit of extra risk whenever there is an opportunity, from writing a job application that does not undervalue her skills, something research shows that most women do and men do the opposite. Women undervalue and undersell themselves and men oversell themselves. Women tend to undervalue themselves all over the world,” said the ILO country head, Tine Staermose at the recent launch of the study report.

Brick walls on the other hand are horizontal barriers that keep women within particular types of employment. While the glass ceilings stop women from climbing up the organisational ladder, brick walls limit women to only certain types of jobs. Operating together, these imaginary glass ceilings and brick walls very effectively limit women’s growth and development opportunities.

Despite equal education opportunities and despite nearly half the private sector workforce (45 percent) being female says the ILO, occupational segregation in still strong in Sri Lanka. Only a very few women occupy positions of power and decision making in the local private sector. This is in spite of the fact that in most university courses, including management, law and liberal arts, the numbers of women outnumber men and large proportions of women attend management and accounts training programmes offered by private educational institutes, notes the study.

The ILO points out that gender bias favouring men is found in all areas of life in Sri Lanka. In terms of political decision-making only 1.4 percent of local politicians were women and only 4 percent of all parliamentarians were women according to 2004 data. In the public sector only 15.5 percent of employees are females.

Outdated attitudes
Sri Lanka has ratified all four key conventions that promote gender equality at work. These are the Equal Remuneration Convention, Convention on Discrimination, Convention on Workers with Family Responsibilities, and the Convention on Maternity Protection.

Studies done in other parts of the world also indicate that gender equality increases business productivity. However, many Sri Lankan companies are reluctant to make adjustments to corporate structure and processes that would support women workers. Companies ignore societal expectations of women and the fact that women are required to juggle other responsibilities outside the work environment.

The ILO-EFC study found that although gender bias does not apply only to women, many companies still function within the traditional mindset and attitudes that applied to a bygone time when only men went out to work. Facilities at work and corporate culture are still strongly oriented towards male only workforces and have not been adjusted to accommodate increasing inflows of women that are forced to go out and work for economic reasons.

The study points out that “Although capable of undertaking any type of work, when women enter the workforce, the work culture is often not conducive to their outlook, values and aspirations since they are socialised to be different to men.”

“Today organisational structures and processes developed by men reflect their values and behaviour. Thus most formal organisations are masculine in nature. When women access these organisations they face enormous difficulties,” says the study. However, Sri Lankan workingwomen take their work very seriously and the theory that women go out to work only for few years until they get married, is no longer true.

“A majority of these women convey that working is a vital/indispensable activity in their lives. This explodes the social myth that working is a frivolous activity for women; that they are just marking time before getting married and that they are merely making secondary a contribution to the household,” says the study.

But while women are willing and ready to make adjustments in their lives to build careers Sri Lanka’s corporate sector has still not made this mental adjustment.

Women entering the world of work are subjected to discrimination even before a job interview, starting from the point of the job advertisement that asks for only male applicants. Once hired, men are often paid better for doing the same work and the report notes “striking gender disparities in wage payments,” and a “lack of transparency in the composition of wages”.

At work women face many difficulties ranging from lack of safe sanitary facilities to sexual harassment. Many of these difficulties faced by women are simply due to insensitivity on the part of management. For instance, getting women to work late or remain late for ‘office events or office functions’ without providing transport facilities to go home.

Given the deficiencies of the local transport systems and cultural attitudes towards women, managers must understand that remaining at office after hours is far more difficult for women than for men, unless they are ensured safe passage home.

Other types of outright insensitivity included management attitudes to how women should dress. One woman employee that participated in the survey mentioned how she was expected to wear high heels despite developing a backache because of it. In general the study notes that women are also expected to dress more formally in sari, although men are often allowed more casual and easy to wear clothes.

Updating corporate culture
Gender stereotyping and gender bias does not apply only to women but also to men. Men are expected to go out and work and be less involved in family commitments. Certain types of employment also favour women over men. For instance a male secretary in a private company was ridiculed by his colleagues because he was performing what is seen as a woman’s job.

To reduce such genderised attitudes at work, the ILO and the Employers Federation of Ceylon, are now drawing up a manual that would help companies design corporate policies that are equal and equitable. The instructions would help businesses restructure company culture to facilitate equal rights and opportunities for both men and women.


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