Women’s participation in the labour market is low in Sri Lanka as it is anywhere in the world. This has adverse implications not only for individual women who go without the economic and social empowerment, but also for businesses that can benefit from women that are empowered

It has been proved time and again that women are just as capable as are men when it comes to leadership, intelligence and drive, as well as beating them on qualities critical in modern business like empathy, honesty, fairness and compassion. Business leadership teams lacking in these qualities and values may cause them to lose touch with consumers and other stakeholders. The answer can be as simple as having more women on teams and heading companies. Research shows that everyone does better when women share the reins of power.

3Women in Boardrooms

Sector representation of the CSE board representation held by women

Sri Lanka’s poor record of engaging women to be part of the workforce does not extend to the boardrooms of listed companies, according to the findings of a survey conducted by the International Finance Corporation, the private sector funding arm of the World Bank. In a handbook listing the female directors, IFC found that 8.2% of the over 1,500 board directors serving listed companies in Sri Lanka were women. Significantly their representation is higher in the financial sector, which includes banks, some of Sri Lanka’s largest and most profitable companies. IFC says women hold 15% of global boardroom seats but only 4% of chief executives are women. Women hold 22.6% of European-listed company board seats and 14.5% in North America. The Asian average is only slightly lower than the Sri Lankan one at 7.8%.

4Why do so many women stay out of the labour force


Data show that, in rich countries, almost as many women as do men work. Women’s labour market 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 (Chart 1). This 37% gap between participation of working age men and women in the labour force is the 14th highest in the world, according to data compiled 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%, higher than Sri Lanka.

6Only 4.2% of Sri Lankans are unemployed. Many private sector businesses struggle to find talent. Some are hiring workers from overseas, while others like ready-made clothes makers are locating new factories overseas because they can no longer find enough people in Sri Lanka. ot many more men can be working. Globally, male labour market participation is 75%, approximately the same as in Sri Lanka. The global average female labour market participation rate is 48%, and this is higher in rich countries and lower in poor ones.

If the rate of female participation were 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 in the workforce. Even if Sri Lanka’s female participation rose 15 percentage points to 5around 50%, that would bring over one million people to the labour force. 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 women being outside the workforce is a loss for women. But it’s also a social and economic loss for people and businesses generally.

Economic empowerment of women across the world underlies the remarkable economic and social transformation during the last 50 years. Millions of people 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 identity is usually chaotic. However, in most places, the transformation has taken benign form, welcomed even by men.