Compiled by Avanti Samarasekera


Shashi Kandambi Jassim champions equal rights and roles for women at work

Q: Owing to the dominance of gender stereotypes and patriarchal beliefs, the road to success has been traditionally bumpier for women in the workplace… So does gender bias remain a significant barrier to women’s career advancement?

A: Gender bias does exist but not always and everywhere in the way one would expect. A good example of this is in Asia where gender bias seems to be more prevalent as a rule.

But even in Asia – when you look at India and Sri Lanka, for example – the highest positions in the country in terms of political office have been held by women. So the people of both nations have shown the world what women in high places can do.

In India today, the finance minister is a lady and there are many other female members of parliament as well. I believe that Sri Lanka is also moving towards a higher proportion of female representation in high office.

I also believe that under the guise of gender bias, there are a host of other prejudices – such as religion, caste, location and so on – that are used as factors in discrimination against women.

In Sri Lanka, statistically speaking the representation of women in universities is higher compared to men; but this reduces drastically in the context of the workplace. The reasons are twofold.

Firstly, women take certain responsibilities – for instance, being daughters or mothers – more seriously and feel duty-bound to their families. This mindset makes them take a step back from the corporate world.

Secondly, organisations that have shift work usually prefer to hire male employees rather than females, due to safety and security concerns. But this also makes it harder for women to climb up the corporate ladder.

Q: Given your experience in the banking sector, how do you view the importance of teaching young women
the importance of saving and investing – and how do women compare with their male counterparts in this regard?

A: Women are inherently thrifty; they know how to save.

Recently, I shared my experiences with several university students. While listening to the questions they had during the discussion, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that some of them were quite know­ledgeable about nontraditional investment instruments – such as cryptocurrencies and speculative investments, for example.

My understanding is that young women look for value for money before spending and explore the best opportunities more than their male counterparts do.

Q: Out of the 8.6 million economically active people in this country, less than 65 percent are men and only around 35 percent are women. In your assessment, what is the role of women entrepreneurs in economic development?

A: Women entrepreneurs offer value to society, and female entrepreneurship has the potential to empower people, develop rural women and solve other social problems. Today, there is a strong support system for women entrepreneurs.

Even banks have established special schemes for female-led enterprises since women are our preferred borrowers. In banking, we feel they’re more credit­worthy and pose lower risks.

We also have special financing schemes in partnership with nongovernmental agencies such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB). This is because we feel that women are able to make a significant contribution to the country and its economy.

Q: As for gender parity, what advice would you give women who aspire to break through the glass ceiling – especially in male dominated roles or industries?

A: The only way to do this is by becoming specialists in your respective areas of work.

A woman has to excel in the role she plays by creating healthy competition with male counterparts. If you have the knowledge, experience and skills, you can stand up for yourself anywhere and whenever necessary.

Networking is also important. You need to have the appropriate social skills to mingle with the right people. Having strong female mentors will also enable you to learn from their experiences and overcome any challenges you may face.

Self-awareness and perseverance create the path to achieve your personal goals. I pursued my career because I wanted to see myself at the top; and I didn’t allow external challenges to demora­lise me.

Q: In your assessment, what more needs to be done if we’re to achieve gender equality in the workplace?

A: All women have to emerge from their shells and learn to value themselves. Unfortunately, this isn’t happening today.

They have to be more aware of their rights and any opportunities they may have, and cultivate the ability to speak up for themselves.

We may also have to break the rules ourselves – sometimes! There are many activities that raise awareness and promote women’s empowerment, which are being conducted presently in Sri Lanka and internationally too. Legislation is being passed to ensure that there is sufficient women’s representation in corporate boardrooms as well.

The world is slowly changing to include women in the workplace, parliament and corporate boardrooms. As women, we need to understand our capabilities, value ourselves more and position ourselves where we want to be eventually.

The interviewee is the Senior Deputy General Manager – International Banking of Sampath Bank.