Compiled by Isanka Perera


Menaka Wanniarachchi stresses the need to break through the glass ceiling

Q: Could you highlight the gender specific impacts of Sri Lanka’s ongoing economic crisis that could threaten the progress of women?

A: In any crisis situation, women are among the most vulnerable. Women’s experiences at home – as well as their health, work and economic wellbeing – are all negatively affected.

In stressful times, domestic violence against women increases, even as women take on a greater share of tasks including their own jobs. These tasks include guiding children in their studies, and undertaking more household and caregiving responsibilities.

Women are invariably the first to lose their jobs and access to other avenues of income as their male counterparts push them aside to grab available opportunities. In addition, in cases where girls drop out of school before completing their education, the effects will persist for generations to come.

All things considered, the economic crisis in Sri Lanka has not only impaired the current prospects of women but also affected their future prospects.

Q: Does gender bias remain a barrier to women’s career advancement?

A: Gender stereotypes and unconscious biases present a significant barrier to women’s career advancement – to some extent at least.

More progressive organisations institute policies and practices to promote women in leadership, and encourage them to take on partnerships in business. But some organisations still lack the required mindset to accept women as equally capable professionals.

Q: How would you describe the roles of education, training and profes­sional development in the context of empowering women in Sri Lanka?

A: Education is one of the most important ways of empowering women since they can gain knowledge, skills and self-confidence through this process. The educational background of women has a direct bearing on their advancement in society.

Educated women know their rights and how to claim them. In fact, a mother’s educational background is especially influential on her children.

In Sri Lanka, income generating avenues for women are quite extensive. However, it is crucial that society fosters an environment that promotes gender equality in all areas of economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, and health and survival, as well as political empowerment.

Q: In your assessment, what is the role of women entrepreneurs in economic development?

A: Women play a critical role in driving the economic development of any country. An increase of women in the labour force has been the main driver of economic growth in the last few decades. Women entrepreneurs in both developed and developing countries are socially powerful, and have a positive impact on their communities.

There has been an increase of Sri Lankan women participating in economic activities. They support the economy extensively – especially in rural locales and areas that had been affected by the civil conflict as they fill labour gaps left by their male counterparts.

It is also a fact that women make great leaders. They’re natural innovators, and help enterprises to grow and thrive – irrespective of whether they’re executives or in leadership positions.

Q: What are your thoughts on gender stereotypes that are based on society’s misunderstanding of femininity and masculinity?

A: Masculinity is seen as the trait that emphasises ambition and acquisition of wealth while femininity is considered an attribute that highlights caring and nurturing behaviour.

As such, men are traditionally expected to provide for the family’s needs while women take care of the home. Women are perceived as being economically less productive than men; and as a result, not deserving of equal pay in a society that is already patriarchal.

Much of our society has not understood the holistic value of women in the labour force, and made use of their skills and capa­cities to improve the community, economy and country.

Gender stereotypes should be contested since they are damaging to everyone.

Examining and facing your own prejudices – and understanding how they affect your behaviour – is the best way to begin battling gender stereotypes.

Q: And last but not least, what advice would you give women who aspire to break through the glass ceiling – especially in male dominated roles or industries?

A: With issues such as the gender pay gap, women are gaining momentum in breaking the glass ceiling. However, we still have a long way to go in Sri Lanka.

Women who wish to shatter the glass ceiling must set goals that fit their career dreams – and dream bigger. They must be fearless but smart, and should trust themselves and their capabilities as they keep moving forward.

The glass ceiling that once limited women’s career options has given way to a new path that promotes entrepreneurial ownership where they can utilise their business acumen whilst building strong family ties.

Today, women don’t need to spend years climbing and clawing their way up the corporate ladder, dealing with organisational politics, and working long days without being able to enjoy the overall fulfilment they crave and deserve!

The interviewee is the Director Operations of the National Chamber of Exporters of Sri Lanka (NCE).