Rohini Nanayakkara

Bank of Ceylon

Perhaps one aspect of her career that Rohini Nanayakkara would least express is that she was ‘the first female executive’ or ‘the first woman chief executive.’ She was an executive and a chief executive: her gender was not part of that equation; it was her ability and delivery that garnered recognition and success.

Unfortunately, few realise the extent to which women in all circles – industry, commerce, science, academia, the arts and many more – consciously carry their femininity to work with them, which is very little. More men – and women – should heed her words.

She has said that “from my younger days in school and then university, I was never led to think of males and females as different beings. This non discriminative mindset helped me throughout my career.”

Nanayakkara joined the Bank of Ceylon in April 1959 – admittedly at the time few women had ventured to work in a commercial bank as an executive. Her pioneering streak and impeccable performance took her to the top as the (first female) general manager and CEO of a bank in Sri Lanka, and the Asian region.

Exhorting women to not be inhibited by an imagined glass ceiling, she has asserted: “If there’s a barrier, it is because we have built it. Sometimes as ladies, we limit ourselves by not taking up opportunities.”

She expounds the merits of mindset and performance: “We can and should assume responsibilities, and perform in a manner that ensures we’re not discriminated against. I believe that a woman can carry out any job as well as a man; we have to show that we’re equal and our restrictions as women should be managed by us.”

Nanayakkara is refreshingly forthright about her formulae for success. The attributes she cites are all gender neutral – viz. acting decisively, being open-minded, displaying sincerity of purpose, treating everyone with dignity and being the master of one’s own progress.

Perhaps being one of seven children gave her the best perspective and foundation for the attitude with which she has approached life – and her career. Nanayakkara never expected special treatment and has claimed that being a member of a large family meant that she didn’t develop any grandiose notions of self-importance.

Her career deserves scrutiny from a gender neutral perspective. Ability and achievement are androgynous.

Rohini Nanayakkara: there was nothing she couldn’t do.