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Dr. Sulochana Segera

Founder and Chairperson of Women in Management (WIM), Dr. Sulochana Segera spoke to the Nation regarding the motivations behind the upcoming Top 50 Professional and Career Women Awards and the International Leadership Conference 2017, international best practices Sri Lanka could adopt in the labour market, the pivotal role that networking and communication play in the workforce, on whether the gentler sex is the woman’s worst enemy in terms of being supportive of each other, the propensity (or the lack thereof) towards risk taking and on “whether the tough gets going when the going gets tough”, on aspects affecting how female leadership is perceived in the workplace, on the fine distinction between education and skills, gender and stereotyping, while also countering the charge that empowerment was primarily Colombo centric.

Q : Why have you decided to include the Maldives in this year’s Top 50 Professional and Career Women Awards? Weren’t there enough Sri Lankans who fit the bill?

A : The said Awards was started because there was a dearth of role models Sri Lankan women could look up to. Having role models to look up to can make a positive impact on women. In this seventh year of giving out the Awards, we decided to hail the request by the Maldives which has many private organizations run by Sri Lankans and our banks are in the Maldives too, having started businesses there. India, Pakistan and Malaysia too have appreciated us, opening up the possibility of accepting nominations from our neighbouring countries. We however decided to recognize the Maldives for the aforementioned reasons, which makes the Maldives almost a part of our country. At the Awards this time around, women from Colombo, rural areas and the Maldives will receive Awards.

Q : What is the focus of the International Leadership Conference 2017?

A : Everyone focuses on gender. Gender is not a women’s issue but a human issue.

There are best practices outside Sri Lanka, which we aren’t aware of. This is where the International Leadership Conference 2017 comes in.

The Commercial Bank of Ceylon (a public limited liability company) has over 50% women, yet the question is whether the women are at the top or just in/at the middle management level? Corporate leaders are of the view that women can be in/at the middle management level while men can be at the top. Deputy Minister of Public Enterprise Development, Eran Wickramaratne states that female participation in the economy should increase, yet will it just increase?

We must make people aware that men and women both must share equal responsibility for there to be gender equality in the workplace. There should be more productive women in the workforce in active participation. Are we using them? Sri Lanka has a higher female population than males, yet the percentage of women not contributing too is higher than when compared with/to men.

Without women, the Gross Domestic Product will never increase.
This is not a case of women being domestics. In fact, not all women should be career women.

The point is that even while being at home, they can make an earning. They have the time.

Yet, there is no proper childcare. Just because the woman stays at home does not mean that there is proper childcare. Proper childcare does not mean that the woman has to stay at home, take the child/children to school and stand next to the school gate. Proper childcare means making the child/children independent and safe. This can be done by women.

Mothers play a role as an educator and teacher. This has an impact. Children are given academic skills, yet the women can make the children aware of life skills.

Even educated women face issues at home. This happens in particular when the economic burden of bearing the entire expense of bringing up the family is only on the man’s shoulders. There are impacts on the family life, issues pertaining to women, childcare and with regard to leading a comfortable life. These may lead to breakups. If women don’t work and contribute, this becomes a burden for men. Men are stressed and suffer from a litany of illnesses. The man’s role in the family must be relooked at.

Q : What are some of the best practices that Sri Lanka can and should adopt?

A : The Securities and Exchange Board of India in 2015 issued guidelines for listed companies/firms to have at least one woman in/on their boards. Malaysia too introduced a quota of having at least two women on such boards. Some will argue that just because there is such a rule, it will be a director’s wife who will be appointed. Be that as it may, the point is that women are at least represented.

It is not being suggested however that we in Sri Lanka should do the same. This is because most women in Sri Lanka aren’t ready to take up leadership. Women are comfortable being employed and being in/at the middle management level. The majority of the women in middle management positions are unwilling to leave their comfort zones. Women in middle management want to go for higher positions for higher salaries, yet are not willing to take the risks entailed. They don’t think about career prospects.
Maldives is also increasing women’s participation in the economy.
South Asian women are well educated. Yet, internationally Sri Lankan women are branded as domestic workers. The women in the countries to which our women go to, have a lower level of literacy. Our women at least have studied up to Grade Eight or have passed the General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level examination. Our country must make these people skilled workers. Why are we sending unskilled domestic workers? We are not applying best practices.

Malaysian administration was started with the participation of Sri Lankans. This is why they have achieved some success. The same is the case with the Maldives. Now, the Maldives has started their own universities. The Philippines started out sending housemaids, now they don’t. They instead send those with higher levels of skills.

Yet, Sri Lanka struggles to make women economically empowered.
Women alone cannot come out of this mindset of dependency. Most Sri Lankan women marry for personal security, to start a family or because the society or their culture dictates so. This should not be the reason why they marry. They must marry mutually with love and both partners must be equally responsible for developing each other and the family’s economy.

A long time ago, in Singapore, few women participated in the economy. Women were subsequently given opportunities to work in offices, yet on a flexi-hours basis, as part-time employees and not as full timers. When their children were at school and their husbands were at work, they were happy to be in an office environment.

There are educated women who have university degrees who are not working or doing a business at home. There are retired women who can still work. There are some women who have gained the necessary experience and skills but have no proper qualification or certification to show for such. We must take them all into the labour force.

In India, Tata introduced the Second Career Internship Programme. Research has revealed that women who leave work because of pregnancy or children, after a while get bored and frustrated. There is however no opportunity left for them to join the workforce after being out of work for about five years. Thus, Tata instead of outsourcing projects of the Company out to companies, let them be run by women who were staying at home. They found out that rather than having companies run the projects, it was effective including cost wise to run small projects and handover the reins to women.

When one does this, one no longer has to sell women as domestic workers. One also need not worry about children or gender related issues. This is because women automatically have become part of the economy.

Q : How important is networking in this regard?

A : Networking is key for anyone to achieve their objectives, career prospects, to be hired or to succeed in business.
In Sri Lanka, the concept is misconstrued. In Sri Lanka, it is about meeting buddies, drinking and eating.

Networking is however about meeting people who reached heights and in turn can help one and is a platform that allows oneself to brand oneself in the market.

Women hardly network. This is because most networking takes place after office hours. During office hours, it is all about working and not networking. Women if married find it difficult to participate. Young girls, on the other hand, are not interested due to the lack of awareness about what networking does or could do.

We have introduced the ‘tea break for women’ and ‘breakfast meeting’ programmes. In the former (one hour duration – from 4.30 p.m. to 5.30 p.m. or 5.30 p.m. to 6.30 p.m.) and the latter (7.30 a.m. to 9.30 a.m.), the venue is decided in prior. A male or female guest speaker is invited to give a speech on a topic. This takes place monthly. In the former, what started out with three to four members has now swelled up to 25 women, and we have had to keep people out and the number of people who want in, limited. These networking sessions allow people to hire others and allows for themselves to get hired. In the latter, there are 50 to 75 persons including men and women.

Q : What are the major issues faced by women in management in Sri Lanka today?

A : The question as to whether women occupying top leadership positions in organizations (as general managers and chief executive officers) support other women to achieve the same, remains. Do women who are already at the top and are industry leaders support others to come up the ranks?

Females in management put forward the purported existence of a glass ceiling as an excuse. Women often talk of there being a glass ceiling, yet this is a creative excuse given to stop climbing the ladder.

Q : What are the problems with regard to accepting the leadership of women?

A : Men are not aware of the fact that female leadership matters to organizations. Also, industry leaders are sometimes unaware of female leadership.

Q : Why are they unaware of such?

A : The question of balancing the family life and work, life is never posed to male leaders and is one that is solely put to females.
Q : What is the role of communication in respect to this matter?
A :  Communication matters. There must be changes in this regard. The point is for men and women to work together to change the world. All must participate.

Q : Is there any disparity between education and the requisite skills, that has in turn had any effect in relation to this situation?

A : Although women are much educated, there remains a gap with regard to whether women have the right skill set on par with their education. Are the skills possessed by women of use practically?

Q : Are women in fact particularly risk averse?

A : Sometimes however being risk averse makes for visionary leadership.

Q : Is there an emphasis in the workplace on gender as opposed to merit?

A : Competence must be in terms of gender and the job. This concept however is not found in the corporate sector.

Q : What are the lacunas at the policy level that have led to the present circumstances?

A : Although organizations have human resources policies, there are no gender policies.

Q : How are women stereotyped in the workplace?

A : On the question of stereotyping, women are allocated dedicated professional roles (in the case of law, women are encouraged to pursue civil law as opposed to criminal and in the case of journalism, women aren’t encouraged to engage in investigative journalism). It is important that they think out of the box.

Q : Do women provide excuses when it comes to delivering the goods?

A : While women demand equal positions in jobs and equal pay in relation to men, they are however unwilling to take up equal responsibility and oft resort to giving femininity as an excuse. Delivering the results is what matters.

Q : In reality, aren’t many of these programmes meant to empower women, girls and youth, Colombo centric, and not oriented towards the periphery?

A : We have worked and are working with women in rural areas. We have been to each and every area in the country and from 2009 to 2016, we have empowered 10,000 women. Other organizations have highlighted women whom we initially brought to the limelight. The platform is not solely for women in Colombo. There is an Award for professional women and an Award for women in rural areas. Last year, the woman who won the Upcoming Woman Entrepreneur Award was on the following month, invited by Shangri-La, Hambantota, to open a boutique. We market these women and we share their products.

Elsewhere, we visit girls who have undergone rape and abuse, and their families. We speak to them. We give scholarships to those who have got good results but don’t have parents. For those who don’t have a place to live, in order to provide them with shelter, we build houses.

We are not a non-governmental organization. We do things however in a professional way. We work in all the districts along with the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs. We impart management skills. Firstly, on how to groom themselves to become successful, secondly, on how to manage their families, and thirdly, on how to manage their businesses.

On youth empowerment, we speak to the young on entrepreneurship because no one does. Entrepreneurship is all about thinking out of the box. This is will allow us to have creative youth in the labour force.