Photo courtesy of IFC

Today is International Women’s Day

Women in management is a catchphrase one often hears with many awards and ideals circulating around it. Yet when it comes to women in corporate Sri Lanka, while you have the avant garde, fashionable mothers who are top cadre, how exactly are women manoeuvring this space and is it truly an empowered space?

Globally women’s representation in the corporate world as CEOs is very low; only 8% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. In Sri Lanka, we recently celebrated the first woman CEO of a conglomerate, Kasturi Chellaraja. Yet the gender gap is stark. According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2021, Sri Lanka’s ranking has dropped 14 places to 116th place out of 156 countries.

Many Sri Lankan corporates are still very much like a neo-feudal system where the CEO or chairman is respected bordering on fear and is one who is used to having the woman as a secretary or in the lower echelons of the management cadre. The term Personal Assistant (PA) has now replaced the traditional secretary but if one looks closely, few men are PAs; the majority are still women fulfilling the secretary/PA role.

In middle management, the women are relegated to handling marketing roles, branding, customer relations, corporate communications and human resources. Very few women head sales teams as this is seen as a man’s world – dealing with vendors, distributors and sales targets, which involves fierce competition to achieve monthly goals. A woman who was given the task of heading a sales team at a leading company mentioned how it took so long to change the mindset of the people on her team and accept a woman as a head. She eventually gained their respect and achieved her targets simply because she did not want to prove the stereotype that a woman cannot handle sales.

Hence a woman in management heading certain roles is under immense pressure to perform and be better than her male counterparts simply because she is a woman and she is a minority among the men.

Social stereotypes

Depending on the place one works, there are stereotypes set for women from how they are expected to behave to how they dress and how they conduct themselves. Any woman wearing anything “indecent” (short skirts, fitting clothes, cleavage showing) is immediately labelled various things from being loose to asking for it to trying to sleep with the boss. A woman who smokes or drinks alcohol will be looked upon as a bad girl whereas men smoking and drinking is perfectly acceptable and even admired.

A woman who speaks her mind in office, who takes a stand and who demands she be given her due place would be labelled aggressive or having an attitude problem. Yet the boss who screams at his staff and throws files around is admired for getting the job done.

Women are constantly tasked with taking notes and minutes at meetings and organising the food for events or meetings. Is the assumption that a woman can write better than a man or knows food better than a man? That in itself is problematic.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment in the workplace is rampant at all levels in a corporate setting. Whether it is inappropriate comments, lewd emails, sexist jokes and unwanted touching, the majority women have faced this during their work life. More often than not, these acts go unpunished because the perpetrator is either a favourite or is the boss himself and many Human Resources (HR) departments do not want to upset the apple cart by taking action. A woman who faced sexual harassment at a multinational company was told by HR that there would be no punishment. Hence many women do not want to pursue action as it leads to nothing and the perpetrator gets away scot free.

Many offices are like old boys clubs where directors and CEOs spend their time swearing with the boys and cracking wife jokes that are derogatory and insulting and unpleasant to listen to.

Promotions and pay

Many a woman in an equal position has been overlooked for a man because of many reasons. Some reasons are will she get married, will she get pregnant, can she work late and can she travel on her own. These are problematic assumptions to make without consulting the person concerned. Even payments are decided based on the boss’ assumption of work. Many women do not speak about what they have done whereas in the corporate environment many men are good at presenting themselves as competent and above average.

Family and social support

Many women leave corporate work once they start a family simply because there is not enough support for them to maintain their jobs while looking after children. Although there are very supportive partners and extended family, this is not the case for everyone.

Certain companies have allowed flexible hours and working from home to mitigate this as well as setting up crèches at the office itself. However this is the case with a very few companies and a majority do not allow flexible hours or provide for child care. With Covid-19 and its resultant situation, companies are moving towards working from home and more flexible hours. However it remains to be seen if this would be a permanent state or shift back to the old way once things settle.

Overall, when you consider the corporate space of Sri Lanka, it is still in its infancy in giving women an equal and empowered space. Instead of giving red roses and massages on International Women’s Day, corporates should ensure equal pay, equal opportunity and equal representation in their cadre, especially at the executive level.

According to The Case for Gender Diversity Among Sri Lanka’s Business Leadership commissioned by the IFC in 2019, one of their main findings was “On average, companies with a higher percentage of women in business leadership positions exhibit better financial indicators than those with lower gender diversity in terms of return on equity, return on total assets, and price-to-earnings ratio.”

In this light, it is important that the corporate world becomes more progressive and moves away from the feudal model that many still embrace. Token representation of women on director boards and in the workforce is pointless and counterproductive. What we need is an attitude shift and a commitment to representing women in the organisation in an empowered capacity and not just as administration or support staff. Women deserve equal opportunities and we should not have to be fighting for it in the corporate sector. Until this shift occurs, women will have to continue to sing like the caged bird in the hope of one day being set free from the shackles of patriarchy.