Women at Work: The Course for Sri Lanka

Gender gaps in the labour market remain one of the most pressing challenges facing the world of work. Women are substantially less likely than men to participate in the labour market, and once in the job market, they are less likely than men to find a job and the quality of employment they do find remains a key concern.

Press release | 15 June 2017
COLOMBO (ILO News): Gender gaps in the labour market remain one of the most pressing challenges facing the world of work. Women are substantially less likely than men to participate in the labour market, and once in the job market, they are less likely than men to find a job and the quality of employment they do find remains a key concern.

Today the ILO released a highly relevant “World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends for Women 2017” report that provides eye opening analysis on women in the labour market, including the huge economic benefits that could be made by closing gender gaps. It finds that the global gender gap in workforce participation stands at 26.7% between men and women. In South Asia, the gender gap is even larger – a staggering 50.8%.

The report concludes that there are significant socioeconomic and gender norm constraints influencing a woman’s decision to participate in the workforce. Further, it concludes that “closing the gender gaps by 25 per cent by 2025 could add US$ 5.8 trillion to the global economy and boost tax revenue.”In Asia-Pacific, a smaller gender gap could add a staggering US$ 3.2 trillion to the economy.

So, what does all the above mean for Sri Lanka?

WOMEN AT WORK: THE SRI LANKAN SITUATION

Although Sri Lanka has distinguished itself as a regional trendsetter on gender equity with regard to education and other social indicators, women have remained pegged at a meagre 30-35% of the workforce for the past two decades. The ILO-Sri Lanka conducted a study in 2016, in a bid to understand why this negative trend of women in the workforce persists.

The results revealed that despite the country’s vast strides in education, health and other indicators; women have lower chances to get into the workforce than men- and even if they wrestle against the odds and get hired, they eventually face wage discrimination.

In the private sector, female workers can earn anywhere between 30-36% less than their male counterparts- for doing exactly the same job. The picture is not entirely bleak though, with greater gender parity in wages in the public sector.

WHY DOES THIS MATTER?

How or why does the number of women in the workforce matter to Sri Lanka? For starters, there is the issue of basic fairness to men and women, and offering all genders equal opportunity and freedom to make their own choices: a notion strongly supported by Article 12 (1) of the Constitution, and ILO Convention No. 111 on non-discrimination in employment and occupation that Sri Lanka ratified back in 1998.

In addition, being supportive of women in the workforce also makes economic commonsense. Trends indicate that with the ageing population, the labour force could start shrinking by as early as 2026. This in itself could pose a real challenge to economic growth that simply will not be overcome without closing the gender gap for Sri Lankan women.

HOW SRI LANKA COULD DO BETTER
From the 2016 ILO study, the skewed workforce statistics seem to stem from a common underlying theme: gender norms and biases, which possibly reach back to family environments and extend all the way to workplaces. Of the 500 married women interviewed, as many as 48% of the women who had been previously employed, cited giving up their jobs for homemaking as their main reason to stop working.

The findings from the study largely confirm the existence of constraints such as: a combination of restrictive legislation, the role played by the public sector in creating alternate and privileged employment, inability to adapt to changing work environments, the lack of skills and qualifications in women applicants for certain types of jobs, and social and cultural norms.

The study recommends that flexible work arrangements such as part-time work, working from home and night work be introduced through legislative reforms to enable women to ensure work life balance. The study also calls for better and safer public transportation systems and a safe work environment free of sexual harassment and gender based discrimination, child care services and better wages, “equal pay for equal work” to encourage more women to enter into the labour force.