Without female engagement, Sri Lanka’s Growth will sputter

The low female labour market participation is hurting far more than just women

In rich countries, almost as many women as 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. This 37% gap between participation of working-age men to women in the labour force is the 14th highest in the world.

Planters contend morning sun, evening rain and cool nights are best suited for growing orthodox or black tea, the type for which Sri Lanka 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 18 kilograms of tea leaves before returning home to finish housework. Although it’s not so obvious, 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.

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

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However, a greater number of 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 force at 9.6% is narrowest in the estate sector (see 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%; it 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 (market) as a percentage of the total working-age population.

For instance, a 20-year-old university student won’t be included in the labour force (LF) if she is unwilling to work. However, someone of the same age who is job hunting will be included. Data shows that in rich countries, almost as many women as 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.

This 37% gap between participation of working-age men to 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 in Sri Lanka has been creeping along in the last three decades but the numbers are staggeringly low compared to other countries in a similar stage of development. Other lower-middle-income nations like Georgia, Paraguay, Indonesia, the Philippines, El Salvador and even the Maldives have rates of female labour market participation between 10% to 25% higher than Sri Lanka.

In a country which 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 genders. Female politicians like Chandrika Kumaratunga have shown women that anything is possible. It’s arguable that forces that bore aloft politicians like Kumaratunga to the presidency and before her, her mother to prime minister, had little to do with feminism. But the country’s willingness to elect female leaders may indicate that most Sri Lankan’s aren’t sexist.

Only 4.2% of Sri Lankan’s are unemployed. Many private sector businesses struggle to find talent. Some are hiring workers from overseas while others like the ready-made clothes makers are locating new factories in foreign countries because they can no longer find enough people in Sri Lanka. Not many more men can be working. Globally, male labour market participation is 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 48%. This is higher in rich countries and lower in some poor ones. If the rate of female participation were equal to male, 2.24 million more 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 around 50% that would bring over one million people. If Sri Lanka plans to create one million new jobs, they will have to be filled by foreign workers 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. 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 a benign form, welcomed even by men. In rich and middle-income countries,the transformation didn’t just happen by women deciding they needed economic independence. Social arrangements have had to change around women’s roles as mothers, house workers and caregivers – all unpaid responsibilities.

How successfully a society is able to address the social consequences has determined the success of the transformation. he World Bank, a lender for development to low-income countries, grouped 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 third, gender discrimination in the workplace. Of the 8.4 million working-age women in the county, 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 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 8-21% to GDP in a number of the 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 points less than those for men. Sri Lanka’s labour force participation gap between the sexes is 37%. Worse still, it’s taken over a decade for women’s participation rate to rise 12 points. Even worse still is that progress in the last two decades is much slower compared to the decade before.

Politics, the feminist kind, and its vilification of domestic slavery and lambast of 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; neither 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 to leadership, Sri Lankan men don’t universally respect females.

A survey a few years ago found that 80% of females had experienced sexual harassment on public transport. Recently a follow-up survey found the number to be 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 in public transport. Women hold responsible positions in government and private companies, proving they are as capable as men as leaders. On other qualities like honesty, empathy and willingness to compromise, many judge them to be superior. Viscerally, men that casually harass girls in public transport or ignore such behaviour of others, would find a female leader as 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, of which 56% of respondents 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. 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, the vast majority said they enjoyed it, this also had to do with raising children.

Sri Lanka’s economic growth, driven by expansion in services where brainpower triumphs brute strength, could equally match women with men. Despite this, women remain frustrated because they are forced to choose between motherhood and their 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 polarisation effect of marriage,’ according to the World Bank’s ‘Getting to Work’ report.

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

Some jobs preferred by mothers, such as teaching, don’t see an increase in wages with experience, and 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 to 29 years old. Unemployment among boys of the same age is about 10 points less. By opting for jobs with light hours – and low opportunity for a pay increase with experience – women are ill-equipped to enter the market for private-sector jobs where wages can rise but 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 remote work 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 the risks associated with working in the law’s grey areas. For instance, the Shop and Office Employees Act forbids women working beyond 8pm or more than eight hours a day. While companies can claim an ‘administrative relaxation’, which is an exception, it remains a risk for small and medium employers. The overprotective laws regarding shops and offices contrast with the Factories Ordinance, a document that legitimises 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 childcare is expensive, two-income homes need babysitting help from family. When this is unavailable mothers are often forced to quit work even if that means narrowing their financial opportunity. Different countries have different solutions to the challenge of combining work and parenthood. These range from state-sponsored childcare to long leave with pay, both often choices available in rich countries.

Those keen to get women back to work soon, offer childcare. Others make it easier for parents to work part-time. In poor countries, the resources for such options are limited. Another problem looms. Due to falling fertility rates, Sri Lanka’s over 60 population will double in 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 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 the 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 degrees is rising, it is not yet being reflected in the workforce and women are missing out on well-paid jobs that could be done from home if they choose to. In many cases, a woman’s higher education degree is nothing more than a ticket to a better marriage. 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 small planned families have empowered women. The pill was followed by electricity, which made available refrigerators, allowing food to be prepared for consumption over many days, washing machines to automate the work even a passionate homemaker dreads, and fans and air conditioners for a restful night’s sleep.

The paradox is that these advances have not moved the needle on females in the labour market by more than four percentage points in the last two decades. In other countries, they have incentivised people to invest time in acquiring skills that are hard to learn and pay off over many years. In the ILO study, responders explained the low number of female managers and supervisors on factory floors was 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 – establishing the ground for differing treatment and reward. Gunawardena’s research suggests 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 against 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 or said women will be discriminated against. Conducted in 2012, some of the survey results were reproduced in a World Bank report on improving female workforce participation Even so, the effects of workplace discrimination and lacking skills demanded by the job market doesn’t obstruct women to the same degree as household roles and responsibilities, which fall disproportionately on females. 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. 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 for household responsibilities, catch up with economic changes world over, Sri Lanka’s development march will falter.