Transcending Barriers

Anushya Coomaraswamy sheds light on the importance of pursuing gender parity in the corporate sector

Anushya Coomaraswamy is the Chairperson of the Colombo Club

Q: You were elected as the first lady Chairperson of the Colombo Club last year. What are your thoughts on being associated with this historical appointment? And how are you promoting women’s participation in the club?

A: Over the years, the Colombo Club has had an impressive group of people serve as chairman and I’m humbled to join this select list.

I feel honoured and privileged to have the General Committee and membership place their confidence in me as the first woman Chairperson of the Colombo Club. It is very gratifying.

It’s my hope that this encourages more women to join the club, knowing that they have a part to play in what has for many years been perceived as a gentlemen’s club.

Q: Sri Lanka has made some progress in the context of women empowerment but there is more to be done. What gaps do you see in terms of where we are and where we want to be regarding gender parity?

A: When I qualified as an accountant, the women in my batch were met with strong resistance from the large business houses in the country. They cited several reasons to justify their position that although women were being invited for interviews, these organisations would not be employing them.

This changed as women were recruited to senior management positions with their contributions being appreciated and recognised.

However, the ratio of women to men on boards continues to be very low. Furthermore, women are largely in non-executive roles comprising mostly accountants, lawyers and bankers, with very few being from operational and marketing spheres. This is the case despite many women in family owned or controlled companies doing an excellent job. And this needs to be addressed.

While this is due partly to male attitudes and chauvinism, there also comes into play the attitudes and approaches of women themselves to some extent. Some seem satisfied with what they have achieved and don’t want to go any further.

There is also the issue of women having to balance work with their homes and children. Unfortunately, our culture doesn’t always support men sharing household responsibilities. Perhaps more flexible working arrangements are needed to address this.

Q: Does the glass ceiling still exist for women in Sri Lanka? If so, how should we break it?

A: Yes, I believe that the glass ceiling still exists.

Women bring a different perspective to board deliberations. Given the current economic and social crises with their many dimensions, women directors could make a substantive contribution to the decisions of boards, taking a more sensitive approach to staff and customer needs vis-à-vis the current environment, as well as the changes in attitudes and approaches to problems faced by companies and communities.

When I was appointed to the board of John Keells Holdings (JKH) in 1994, I was told I had broken the glass ceiling – that I was the first woman to be appointed to the board of a blue chip company. The corporate sector at the time was largely an ‘old boys’ club’ and I’m not sure that JKH was any different.

I always felt I was in the right place at the right time. And I believe my contributions as Group Finance Director were generally respected and accepted – but maybe not so much the ‘female point of view’ on operational matters!

Q: In what ways should we encourage more women entrepreneurs?

A: Women in rural areas should be encouraged and empowered. I believe the Women’s Chamber of Industry & Commerce (WCIC) and similar organisations, together with some not-for-profits and women’s groups, have been encouraging and supporting female entrepreneurs.

However, funding is generally an issue. This may be an area where corporates could provide assistance.

Q: ‘Empowerment is an attitude.’ Do you agree? And if so, how can we cultivate it among young girls?

A: My opinion is that this is an oversimplification. Certainly, a positive attitude is imperative along with confidence in one’s own abilities and capacity. But the support of those you are working with is also needed.

I believe this begins in school through an education system that |encourages self-thinking, decision making, and accepting responsibilities and delivering them.

Q: And what is your advice to women professionals in Sri Lanka?

A: You have received the same education and training as the men who qualified with you. Don’t underestimate yourself but believe in your ability and capacity to deliver.

And don’t compromise your core personal values and philosophies. Maintain your integrity and that will always serve you in good stead.

In person

Ladies’ College

Fellow member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Sri Lanka (CA Sri Lanka)
Fellow member of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA)

Tai chi

I cannot highlight any particular achievement – but I cherish the reactions of and comments from family members and close friends, work colleagues and others, following my achievements.

To ensure that my tenure as Chairperson of the Colombo Club is successful and uphold the confidence placed in me by the membership – particularly the General Committee, which recommended me for the post.

To give my best in any job I undertake, not take on more than I can handle, and try to enjoy the positives in my life and not be too affected by the negatives.

Believe in yourself. Don’t compromise your values and integrity. Stand up for what you believe in.


Proud of who you are and what you can contribute to the world

Treating everyone the same regardless of their status, gender or ability

Convincing yourself and those around you of your ability and capacity to deliver on goals while maintaining human relations

Ability to face opposition and overcome obstacles, and still reach your goals

“Given the current economic and social crises… women directors could make a substantive contribution to the decisions of boards