Sarah Twigg began her discussion on workplace inclusivity and gender equality by stating that “there’s been progress in some areas – but there’s still a long way to go. Female labour force participation has been stagnant around 30-35percent for the last two decades.”

“This is tantamount to only one out of every three women of working age being employed today. It’s staggeringly low, particularly given the high women’s literacy rate in Sri Lanka,” she added.

As she observed, women in the 20-24 age group are the most disadvantaged, being six times more likely to be unemployed compared to others. Marriage, child rearing and household responsibilities result in a large proportion of women not participating in the workforce. As such there’s a huge pool of talented and educated women out there who are not gainfully employed – this is a real missed opportunity.

“Companies that create supportive environments for both men and women see real progress, and great business benefits. A lot of organisations today take this issue seriously and focus on what they can do to create more gender equal workplaces. They not only have access to a greater diversity of talent but also experience increased productivity, improved financial performance and upliftment in employee well-being,” she explained.

When asked about the IFC’s #sheworks initiative, its Program Manager Women in Work Sri Lanka enthused: “At IFC, gender is very much part of our core business strategy. This is reflected through the Women in Work programme in Sri Lanka – a five year partnership with the Australian government and our largest single programme on gender anywhere in the world.”

She continued: “Through its activities, we look at challenges that are prevalent for women across the private sector from gaining access to employment, financial services as well as entrepreneurship opportunities. We aim to bring together stakeholders from the private sector, government policy makers, communities and business owners to help address the challenges that women face…”

As for private and public sector initiatives that would encourage more women to work, Twigg believes that “the initiatives and approaches would be similar irrespective of the type of sector or industry. I very much believe in the age-old saying ‘what gets measured gets done’.”

“Therefore, I’d really encourage businesses to track and understand where their women and men are in the organisations – in terms of job types, levels and positions. Then measure what happens once changes are made. If you’re trying out new interventions, quantify the impacts stemming from them,” she urged.

Policies around flexibility can be a real game changer, she noted, “especially in the current context where families are juggling their careers with increased care and household responsibilities due to working from home… Giving staff the required flexibility to manage myriad responsibilities can be a real motivator.”

“Inequality in pay is another huge issue,” she asserted, noting that Standard Chartered Bank measures the gender wage gap, and tries to make sure that employees who have a similar level of education and responsibilities receive the same employment benefits.

Commenting on the IFC’s role in helping rural women entrepreneurs, Twigg explained that “one of the key ways of  reaching women entrepreneurs in remote areas is through providing greater access to financial services. NDB and Commercial Bank are helping them access the financing they need to start and grow a venture.”

The IFC has a partnership with AIA Sri Lanka, which is developing a women’s insurance strategy, she disclosed: “It is our intention to see more Sri Lankan women having better access to their insurance requirements.”

And the IFC has been working with the Central Bank of Sri Lanka “to develop the country’s first national financial inclusion strategy with a gender sensitive approach right from the outset,” she added.