Women and Work: Why so few?

Female participation in the labour market has grown four percent in twenty years. What’s really holding women back?

By Veronika Halamkova & Shamindra Kulamannage

Planters contend morning sun, evening rain and cool nights are best suited for growing orthodox or black tea, the type for which Sri Lanka has made a name for itself in the century and a half since the crop was first planted. Sri Lanka’s misty, cool and damp central highlands provide the perfect backdrop. Mist-covered mountain slopes are cold and wet when female workers, who do most of the plucking in Sri Lanka’s highland plantations, arrive at the fields. Tarpaulin head covers, fraying jerseys and saree clad to keep the cold and damp at bay, they work briskly to pluck at least 18kg of tea leaves before returning home to finish their housework.

A little known fact is that, once plucked, tea has to be moved along the processing line quickly to preserve the quality of the final product. Leaves plucked in the morning are transported to the factory without exposure to the midday sun and processed the same day.

Until the late 1980s, tea dominated Sri Lanka’s exports, and funded imports of petroleum, food and machinery for production. However, tea’s economic contribution didn’t benefit the over a million workers who plucked and processed the crop.

Working conditions of people living in estates aren’t as idyllic as depictions in postcards and tourism promotion images. Mostly of South Indian origin, tea estate workers record the lowest educational levels and life expectancy in Sri Lanka. They are also the poorest in the country. Poverty in estate settlements, dominated by tea but including rubber and coconut, at 10.9% is almost three times the national average. In addition to this, estates have the lowest percentage of recipients of social safety net benefits, according to an estate sector nutritional study by the World Bank.

However, more women in estate settlements are more likely to work than those in other rural areas or cities. The difference between the male and female labour forces at 9.6% is narrowest in the estate sector (Chart 1). In urban areas, the gap is 31.4%, and 26.2% in rural areas. Currently, 95.8% of those in the labour force (labour market) have jobs.

However, the estate work ethic is an isolated phenomenon. Those in estate settlements account for just 4.5% of Sri Lanka’s labour market, and their high labour force participation doesn’t have much of an effect on the national average. In rural areas, where most people live, the gap is 26.2%, and is highest in cities at 31.4%.

For the purposes of this story, it’s important to appreciate the difference between the labour market, which is those over 15 years old who have a job or are looking for one, and the labour force participation rate (LFPR), which is the labour force as a percentage of the total working age population.

For example, a 20-year-old university student won’t be included in the labour force if he/she is unwilling to work. However, someone of the same age who is job hunting will be included. In estimating the labour force participation rate (LFP), both the student and the job seeker will be included, as they are both of working age (above 15 years old).

Data in rich countries show that almost as many women as men do work. Women’s labour force participation is also high in poverty-stricken countries, where it takes at least two incomes to keep a family sheltered and fed. In Nepal, a poor landlocked country, around 80% of working age men and women are in the labour market. In Sri Lanka, 73.6% of working age men are in the labour market, but only 36.6% of working age women choose to do so. This 37% gap is the 14th highest in the world, according to a report complied by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) with data from national statistics offices worldwide.

Female participation in the workforce has been creeping along over the last three decades, but the numbers are staggeringly low compared to countries in a similar state of development. Other lower middle-income nations like Georgia, Paraguay, Indonesia, the Philippines, El Salvador and even the Maldives have female labour market participation rates of between 10% and 25%, which is higher than in Sri Lanka.

IN A COUNTRY THAT elected the first female prime minister in the world, it’s shocking that women’s workforce participation is one of the lowest globally. Sri Lanka’s laws mostly grant equal rights to each gender. Female politicians like Chandrika Kumaratunga have taught women that anything is possible.

It’s arguable that forces that bore aloft politicians like Kumaratunga to presidency and before her such a discordant person as her mother to prime minister had little to with feminism. But, their willingness to elect female leaders may indicate that most Sri Lankans aren’t sexist.

Only 4.2% of Sri Lankans are unemployed. Many private sector businesses struggle to find talent. Some hire workers from overseas, while others like readymade clothes makers are locating new factories in foreign markets because they can no longer find enough people in Sri Lanka.

Not many more men can be working. Globally, male labour market participation is at 75%, approximately the same level as in Sri Lanka. In rich countries, the rate of male labour market participation is lower, and it’s around the global average in poor countries.

The global female labour market participation rate is at 48%, and this is higher in rich countries and lower in poor ones.

If the rate of female participation was equal to men, 2.24 million women would be in the workforce and Sri Lanka’s labour market would swell to 10.8 million. If the average Sri Lankan household has four family members, then around 2.5 of them will be a part of the workforce. Even if Sri Lanka’s female participation rose 15 percentage points to around 50%, it would bring the total to over one million people. The government’s planned one million new jobs creation will require foreign workers to fill positions unless a million women can be encouraged to join the workforce.

Conjecture aside, so many females being outside the workforce is a loss for women; but, it’s also a social and economic loss for people and businesses in general. Economic empowerment of women across the world underlies the remarkable economic and social transformation during the last 50 years. Millions of women who were once dependent on men have been able to take control of their own economic lives. Social change of this scale and involving people’s identities is usually chaotic. However, in most places, the transformation has taken benign form, welcomed even by men.

In rich and middle-income countries, the transformation didn’t just happen by women deciding that they needed economic independence. Social arrangements have had to change around women’s roles as mothers, house wives and caregivers, all unpaid responsibilities. How successfully a society is able to address the social consequences has determined the success of the transformation.

THE WORLD BANK, a lender for development to low-income countries, groups these challenges into three broad areas in a 2017 report on improving Sri Lanka’s female participation in the workforce. They are the disproportionate responsibility for household work falling on women, the challenge of women not acquiring skills the job market demands, and gender discrimination in the workplace. Of the 8.4 million working age women in the country, only 3.1 million are in the labour market, and 6.8% or 358,000 are unemployed. Male unemployment is only 2.7%.

Housework keeps 92% of women between the ages of 25 and 54, around 5.4 million women, economically inactivity or outside the labour market. Sri Lanka and its female population have passed up the social and economic transformation of the emergence of women into the workforce over the last 50 years that benefited many countries.

Goldman Sachs, an investment bank, calculated that increasing women’s participation in the economy to levels equalling men will add between 8% and 21% to the number of countries it examined including Italy, Germany, Spain, Japan, America and France. Except for Italy and Japan, all the other countries mentioned in the study have female labour market participation rates that are no more than 10 percentage points less than that for men.

Sri Lanka’s labour force participation gap between the sexes is 37%. Worse still is that it’s taken over a decade for women’s participation to rise 12 points; and even worse is that progress has been much slower over the last two decades compared to the decade before. (Chart 2)

Politics, the feminist kind, and its vilification of domestic slavery and lambasting workplace discrimination were the foundation for most of the progress in wealthy nations. In poor countries, potential starvation offered no other choice for women. Sri Lanka didn’t identify with either group: not being universally poor to force all women to the workforce nor having an influential enough feminist movement to inspire a social and economic transformation.

Despite electing women into leadership, Sri Lankan men don’t universally respect females. A survey done five years ago found that 80% of girls had been sexually harassed on public transport. Recently, a follow-up survey found the number at 90%.

It’s a paradox that a society holding women and motherhood in high esteem is capable of such casual and widespread harassment of strangers on public transport.

Women hold responsible positions in the government and private companies, proving they are as capable as men of being leaders. On other qualities like honesty, empathy and willingness to compromise, many judge them to be superior. Viscerally, men that casually harass girls on public transport or others that ignore such behaviour would find a female leader unnatural or unacceptable.

COMMENTATORS OFFER various reasons why educated women stay out of the labour market. An International Labour Organisation survey published in 2016 asked women, 56% of respondents to which were full-time homemakers, about their choices. Of them, 29% said they preferred to manage the home over all other options, while a third suggested it was one among several preferred options. Approximately 36% of survey respondents said they would much rather be doing something else than managing the home.

Of those who opted to manage the home, a vast majority said they enjoyed it, which had reasons to do with having children.

Sri Lanka’s economic growth, driven by expansion in services where brainpower trumphs brute strength, will equal match women with men. Despite this, women remain frustrated because they are forced to choose between motherhood and careers.

The gap between the sexes is greatest in cities. Urban women have seen a slight bump (1 to 2 percentage points) in labour market participation over the last decade. However, the gap remains greatest here ‘considering the polorisation effect of marriage’, according to the World Bank’s ‘Getting to Work’ report.

Analysing available government and other data, the report highlights how the probability of a married women being in the workforce is 4.4% lower than for an unmarried one (corresponding data for 2009 and 2006 are 6% and 8% lower, respectively). Meanwhile, marriage provided an 8% premium for men nationwide (corresponding data for 2009 and 2006 are 14% for both years). (Chart 4)

Some jobs preferred by mothers like teaching don’t see an increase in wages with experience and the hours are relatively light. Government jobs also have similar characteristics, leading many educated women to pursue them. However, few new government jobs are being created, and female youth unemployment is now 24% for girls up to 24 years and 17.4% for those between 25 and 29 years. Same age boys’ unemployment is about 10 points less.

By opting for jobs with light hours and low opportunity for pay increases with experience, women are ill-equipped to enter the market for private sector jobs where wages rise steeply and schedules are demanding. Dileni Gunewardena, an academic at the University of Peradeniya with an interest in topics related to female labour market participation, points out that employment needs to make financial sense. “If the wages are not worth their while, they would not come to work.”

Sri Lanka’s antiquated laws, designed to protect female employees, have the opposite effect. Concepts like part-time work, flexible hours or working remotely are not clearly defined and leave employers to bear the same level of responsibility for these roles as for their full-time staff.

This makes it harder for women, who prefer flexible terms, to find opportunities because large companies won’t want the complexity and risks associated with working in the law’s grey areas.

For example, the Shop and Office Employees Act forbids women working beyond 8pm or for more than eight hours a day. While companies can claim an ‘administrative relaxation’, which is an exception and promise not to be prosecuted, it remains a risk for small and medium-sized employers.

In Sri Lanka, 73.6% of working age men are in the labour market, but only 36.6% of working age women choose to do so. This 37% gap is the 14th highest in the world

The overprotective laws regarding shops and offices contrast with the Factories Ordinance, a document that legitimizes factories demanding 60 hours of overtime a month if there is a need to ‘deal with the pressure of work in the factory’.

As it turns out, it can be easier for women to work in the informal sector, as it gives them more flexibility, even at the cost of security. Universally, working parents feel guilty and worry about the limited time they spend with their children due to their crowded schedules. Since child care is expensive, two-income homes need babysitting help from family members. When this is unavailable, mothers are often forced to quit work, even if it means narrowing financial opportunity.

Different countries have varied solutions to the challenge of combining work and parenthood. These range from state-sponsored childcare to long leave with pay, which are often choices available in rich countries. Those keen to get women back to work soon offer childcare. Others make iteasier for parents to work part-time. In poor countries, resources for such options are limited.

Another problem looms. Due to a falling fertility rate, Sri Lanka’s over-60 population will double over the next 25 years. This could add taking care of elderly parents to family responsibilities.

FOR DECADES, girls have had equal access to education, and in most cases outperformed the boys. As many as 98% of girls successfully complete their lower secondary exams, and they outnumber the number boys in tertiary education. This progress surpasses all regional averages of developing countries and has had a positive impact on women’s health.

At the same time, women are still more likely to take up ‘typical’ female jobs instead of considering current labour market demand. While a government position is seen as a prestigious career path, the overflow of applicants makes it nearly impossible to land one.

Surprisingly, almost half of information technology students are female. Although their interest in IT is rising, it’s not yet being reflected in the workforce, and women are missing out on well-paid jobs that could also be done from home in case of childcare duties.

In many cases, a woman’s higher education degree is nothing more than a ticket to a better marriage. It’s a waste of talent and resources invested in education.

Even when women do acquire relevant job skills, they somehow drop out of the labour market. This is particularly disappointing because Sri Lankan families have benefited from access to birth control for decades and even small families have empowered women. The pill has always been available over the counter, and household items like refrigerators that allow food to be preserved to be consumed over many days, washing machines to automate work that even a passionate homemaker dreads, and fans and air conditioners for a restful nights sleep are now accessible and affordable for all.

The paradox is that these have not moved the needle on females in the labour market by more than four percentage points over the last two decades as they have done in other countries. In other countries, these have incentivised people to invest time in acquiring skills that are hard to learn and take many years to payoff.

In the ILO study, responders explained the low number of female managers and supervisors on factory floors as being due to the fact that even a small number of men could not be supervised or ‘handled’ by women. Occupational segregation of men and women was considered normal, therefore not unacceptable, setting ground for different treatment and rewards.

Gunawardena’s research suggests that, even though Sri Lankan women possess higher cognitive skills and the same level of non-cognitive ‘soft skills’ so highly valued in the market, they are not rewarded accordingly.

Women also believe they will be discriminated in the workforce. In a survey questioning if they believed men and women with similar qualifications will be offered similar opportunities, 48% of respondents disagreed. Conducted in 2012, some of the survey results were reproduced in a World Bank report on improving female workforce participation. (Chart 5)

Lacking the skills the job market demands and workplace discrimination don’t obstruct women to the same degree as do household roles and responsibilities, which fall disproportionately on them.

Practical considerations will soon push the agenda. Private companies will need more skilled managers and they won’t find enough of them in the ranks of men; and many more young women will have expectations greater than the role of a housewife, and the resulting economic empowerment will alter the landscape.Unless social arrangements, particularly those that hold women back like household responsibilities, catch up with economic changes the world over, Sri Lanka’s development march will falter.