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