Charting a course for women

To mark International Women’s Day, Daily FT’s Marianne David speaks to some of Sri Lanka’s top women business leaders on the key challenges facing women in today’s corporate world


01Indrani Sugathadasa

Chairperson, Insurance Board of Sri Lanka 

If we take the corporate sector as a whole, there is a large number of female participation as employees. But, the question is how many women are at the top level or decision making level and how many are at the board level. In the insurance sector, out of 29 insurance companies, there is only one Chief Executive Officer and one Chairperson position held by women.

The situation is the same in many other companies in the corporate sector. I do not believe that women are reluctant to take up top positions as many employers claim. It is the attitudes of the employers and the shareholders which often prevents women being appointed to the top level positions.

In the public sector also very few women are appointed to the top positions. For instance, in the ministries, only less than 10% of the permanent secretary positions are being held by women. Although some appointments to the high positions in the Judiciary and district administration have been made, the numbers are not very significant as a percentage to the number of female employees in those sectors.

In the corporate sector “women in the boardroom” has become a popular topic. In India, all companies are required to appoint at least one woman to their boards. Therefore, the demand for qualified female directors has increased and several training programs have been organised to identify and train female candidates. This is a good move as the benefits of any business are associated with gender diversity on corporate boards. I think it is high time to introduce similar requirement in Sri Lanka too.

Since the UN theme for this year International Women’s Day is ‘Pledge for Parity,’ it is important for company owners, shareholders and national policymakers and women themselves pay attention to these issues.

Each of us can be a leader within our own spheres of influence and commit to take pragmatic action to accelerate gender parity.


02Devika Ellepola

Sales Manager, Emirates Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has enjoyed significant progress in its social and economic indicators, and remains one of the few countries in Asia that has a gender ratio favourable to women. However, despite the progress made, Sri Lanka still lags behind in gender equality. Although 51.8% of the country’s total population are women, only a mere 34% comprise its labour force. The reasons for this disparity are numerous.

For far too long men have enjoyed advantages over women in workplaces, politics, and religious discourse which have been rarely acknowledged. More significantly, the inequitable access to resources and power is entrenched in our upbringing and socialisation. Privileges that have allowed men to subordinate women are inculcated at a very early age in the family and in almost every dimension of daily life.

Whether we choose to believe it or not, it is a challenge being a woman in the male-dominated working world. Many work places still remain male-dominated and thus women face significant obstacles in career progression in an organisation. Surrounded mostly by men, women are subjected to more challenges than when in an office with more gender equality; performance pressures, sexual harassment, male stereotypes in the workplace who often doubt women’s competencies result in low levels of support from male co-workers.

Unfortunately, to compensate and protect themselves, women often feel as though they need to adopt a stereotypically “male” attitude toward business/management: competitive, aggressive and sometimes overly harsh.  Nevertheless, this should not hold true. A more “be yourself” attitude with a high level of confidence in who you are would be a better approach. Women naturally have an extraordinary common sense, a sharp intuitive sense and a great focus on people, making them extremely valuable in business and stand out as women leaders. Building strong professional relationships combined with tough decision making and remaining focused on the business goals are central.

Working mothers like me are faced with a double burden. A work-life balance remains critical in this race against equality and striving for success in a male-dominated environment. Asserting oneself, possessing the confidence to speak one’s mind and the determination to succeed in a male-dominant environment are drivers essential in females holding top management positions within the private sector. I strongly believe that opportunities do exist for women to hold top positions.

Sustainable policies to ensure a high level of female representation/leadership positions in high ranking business organisations is a critical part of the success of a vibrant, growing economy. Therefore, strengthening institutions and the scope of national initiatives pertaining to gender equality to mainstream the needs and interests of women and girls in national policies; supporting multi-sectoral and dedicated funding mechanisms; and actively engaging the private sector are essential.

With the growing number of female executives and business owners, it is also important to have women-focused networking events at various professional levels, sharing of ideas, and supporting peers, which would help overcome some of the challenges faced by women aspiring to top positions.


03Vidyani Hettigoda

Director, Hettigoda Group of Companies

These are some of the key challenges for women in business which in my view should be addressed:

1. How women in business should play a major role in influencing the formulation of long-term economic and social goals of the government/country

2. How to change the present business culture and policy towards broader CEO/board level representation of women.

3. Educate women who are involved in small-scale businesses and women entrepreneurs on how to efficiently and profitably manage a business.

4. How to ensure that workplace policies and practices are free from gender-based discrimination.

5. How to establish a zero-tolerance policy towards all forms of violence at work and prevent sexual harassment.

6. Educate women on legal aspects of doing business

7. Educate women on obligations to the society and to the State.

8. Educate women on how to balance their family and business commitments and successfully manage time.

9. Start educating women from school level not to abandon their learning once they finish schooling and get married but make use of their business acumen to establish a better living standard.


04Chiranthi Cooray

Chief Human Resources Officer, Hatton National Bank

A woman in business or management faces multiple challenges of diverse intensity at different levels. At entry level, the pressures are relatively less. However, with familial commitments, balancing a career and making a home becomes a tough challenge for any woman, doing a job at any level, in any culture.

True, there is work-sharing in the home by couples and many such workarounds. Yet there is a sense of responsibility that is ingrained into every woman, which no matter what, no woman is ready to forfeit. So we find many successful women professionals who are juggling and multi-tasking. Some, who have a strong support framework through family and employer, do this more successfully, while others struggle and go through a lot of stress to strike a balance.

Another challenge is whether there is a safe and dignified environment in the business world, where women are treated with respect, whether women are safe from abuse, especially younger women. Sometimes workplace abuse is so thinly veiled that many tend to laugh it off as a trivial matter. Women are expected to condition themselves and move on.

For many professionals and executives, workplace flexibility, understanding and empathy will go a long way to fulfil familial responsibilities and build a career at the same time. It requires a mindset change in the organisations, and understanding that younger women need take time off work to attend to their children’s needs. It does not help much if one’s employer is not ready to provide the flexibility of attending a PTA meeting, or leave to attend to a sick child or aged parent. So the organisation has to have an inclusive culture towards women at work. This in return places a strong accountability on the part of the female workforce to be responsible and use the privileges afforded by the employer with a duty of care.

For senior women leaders, the challenges in addition to those mentioned above, include fulfilling career aspirations at both intrinsic and extrinsic levels. That is why there is a perennial debate, is there a glass ceiling; is there an issue of pay equity? What really matters is not the existence of such, or breaking through it. What matters is whether women have equal opportunity and are not withheld from voicing out their views or if their ideas and contributions are valued; whether the corporate culture promotes meritocracy in the organisation which provides adequate recognition for the contribution made by a woman leader.


05Neela Marikkar

Chairperson, Grant McCann Erickson

There are many challenges for women in the world of business. One of the biggest is the work-life balance, especially for professional women with young children.

Sri Lankan society generally believes that the role of bringing up children and managing the home is the job of the woman. That she has career aspirations for herself is a personal choice that she needs to manage on her own time. So without a strong family support structure it puts enormous pressure on aspiring career women. Sadly some very capable women give up to become stay-home moms as they feel pressured to make that sacrifice.

Personally I am a believer that we have the multitasking ability to do it. We are born with these inherent gifts. As women we are natural born managers. We manage our homes our families and are great caregivers. Further aspiring to have a better quality of life for our families and ourselves, women need to find ways to be financially independent as a key part of being empowered.

However, I think the biggest challenge is how we transform from being just good managers to becoming visionary leaders in the corporate world. How do we get ourselves into the top echelons of senior management? How do we get seats on the boards of the top companies? That’s where we have to reengineer the stereo type that has been perpetrated. I think it starts with us.

While family is precious, we have to be the change agents starting in our own families to promote greater shared responsibility in bringing up families and care giving. This would give the space to women in management positions to demonstrate their willingness to take on much more as often times working late or weekends and travelling out is a necessity and should not be a deterrent due to family commitments. Even maternity leave, it’s important that we don’t switch off completely but rather keep our work life balance going.

Today in the digital world with online facilities available we can stay involved so we don’t lose touch with our work. This also demonstrates serious commitment to our careers and keeps us connected. Today technology enables us and we should use it for our personal growth.

Finally, as women, we need to participate more in our communities. We need to stand up for social causes that affect our children and our communities. As women we have the ability to influence change for the better after all we are all someone’s daughter, sister, mother or wife. At the end of the day we share the same concerns, whether it is the environment, safety and security, economic empowerment and gender equality, especially in a multi-ethnic country like Sri Lanka that has had its social fabric almost destroyed, we can be the bridge builders and the unifiers of our nation. As Sri Lankan women it is within our power to do this.


06Savithri Rodrigo

Managing Director, Stratyx Promotions & Media Concepts

Having been in the media for nearly three decades and launching my business nearly 23 years ago, what has struck me most about women in general is the self-censorship that prevails. We are made to believe there are certain norms that women must follow triggered by societal diktats, which for the most part make women think twice before furthering a career or making ourselves heard.

I have interacted with both the private and public sectors extensively and to the contrary have found that, if women do give opinions of substance and are not afraid of hard work, they are not treated any differently to male counterparts.

This is not to say that women like me don’t have challenges. There are males who are openly bigoted and women who simply don’t like other women. This is the exception and not the rule, but it exists. I have also had a client who doesn’t employ women or work with them as business suppliers, as it is, believe it or not, company policy! I have circumvented that too by simply ensuring that from A to Z, whatever I’ve worked on is perfect, has attention to detail and is ultra professional. They are now a firm presence in our client portfolio.

I strive to maintain a very professional dress code, sari for the most part, because whether we like it or not, from a boardroom to the studio, there are instances when women must conform to expected norms. While my women liberation counterparts may balk at this, I just find it easier to get my opinions heard and taken seriously if I exude a sense of professionalism, which starts with the way I dress.

Doing my homework before meeting anyone also that enables me to put forward well thought out ideas and opinions which again may give me an edge. Another is punctuality and meeting promised timelines, which I make it a point to do.

I have also been fortunate to have a support network that gave and continues to give me the freedom to work inordinately long hours, without feeling guilty at not doing my ‘domestic duties’, because that’s what a woman is ‘supposed’ to do. I know most women are not as fortunate. But there are days when those domestic chores stare me in the face and all I want to do is wave a magic wand and make it all go away.

Being financially independent was instilled in me by my mother and this has driven me to make sure that I have that independence. It is that independence that gives us confidence and inspires us to take the next step with strength and pride. It is we women who must teach both our sons and daughters that gender disparity shouldn’t exist, but rather that the world needs both women and men who work together, a yin-yang so to speak, which translates into empowerment for all.


07Varuni Amunugama

Joint Managing Director, Triad Advertising

Come every ‘International Women’s Day’, we remember the plight of women or simply expressed, where women are, in society today. To be honest, I don’t believe a special fuss needs to be made on one particular day as per the global calendar, merely to recognise and reward women of the world. Just as much as there is a role for any man to play, there is a very important role that nature has bestowed upon women in order to be the successful multi-tasker she is and has always been.

A woman juggles her life in an amazingly precarious manner, where only the smart few who know how to maintain their work-life balance can really achieve the desired results. As the chief kindler of home fires and the powerhouse in any home, the mother or wife of a home keeps her entire family connected.

While her male counterpart provides for the family financially and shoulders the burden of providing the security and stability of a home, it is she, the lady of the house, who has to ensure there is sustenance, peace and harmony, progress and happiness for the complete family. This task is phenomenal. It is very hard at the best of times. But a woman who has understood her responsibilities does manage. This becomes a possibility only because she’s naturally driven by a desire to protect her flock and send them out into the world, as creatures of goodness and ambassadors of positive thinking.

For women, there are numerous inherent challenges that need to be managed, if she is determined to rise to the top of her game. This phenomenon is a universal truth. The most fundamental of them would be the shackles that the women themselves have put upon themselves, where they do not race behind their dreams simply because they don’t have the confidence to do so.

Another very important challenge facing women is the sentimentality as to whether they are compromising on their familial tasks at any point, when handling a multitude of tasks. This sentimentally, if not kept under check, could be a deterrent to a formidable woman, whose passion to achieve keeps her adrenaline flowing. In these situations, most often without identifying the problems and finding solutions, women tend to blame something else, which in reality has no direct bearing on the issue at hand.

In my book, there’s no ‘man’s world’ out there. It is the women who have to focus on their goals and emerge through their self-inflicted glass ceilings. Opportunities will not be a right, irrespective of gender. Women need to display and expose their unique strengths and characteristics in finding solutions to problems. Or even ideas to capture new opportunities.  The greatest asset of a woman is her ability to think from her heart. There’s nothing called ‘too much love’. Only a woman has the ability to find solutions that are heartfelt. Any problem, any challenge can be confronted and managed only if there is empathy and sympathy in conjunction.

If only women can identify and count on the 64 charms (‘maayang hata hathara’ in our colloquial lingo) they’re born with, they can benevolently manipulate most if not every situation to their advantage.

My advice or experience that I would like to share with ‘fellow ladies’ of the present generation is that the fight for ‘gender equality’ is no more the rage because a woman need not be equal. She can be superior. It is prudent to believe in the imPOSSIBLE because within that word lays the hint of possibility. Women are stronger in mind than they think and believe. Give life to these strengths enchained in one’s mind. Set free those creative ideas to fulfill any dream. After all, as

The Buddha said “the problem is that we think we have time”. We simply do not. Therefore, the only way out is to live…and live happily today as well as all todays, that become tomorrow and the day after.


08Rezani Aziz

Chief Executive Officer, Adfactors 

The challenges faced by women in business and management are universal world-over; there is nothing new or nothing that has not been addressed, deliberated on, discussed for hours and days on end, been the focus and subject of global, high level forums with participation of celebrated women in politics, academia, arts and in the business circles. It all boils down to a couple of factors which have to be managed by us women ourselves:

1. Absolute confidence in ourselves that we can manage both the home-front and our businesses, efficiently and without compromise. It is in us to pursue that ambition, however much intimidation there might be from extended family or community. When my boys were growing up, I was told many times that mothers must stay at home if they want their kids to grow up and be successful; on reflection, that’s a load of intimidating rubbish. Mothers can give quality and more often, valuable time, given the exposure and experience of a corporate/working environment

2. Women must push their boundaries and get out of comfort zones. They need to firmly establish themselves as leaders right from the start (like men do). Little steps in that direction are – being able to network with peers (men or women) equally at corporate events without fighting shy. A little homework in this regard goes a long way – being up-to date on current topical matters that become the topics of general discussion. Contacts made through these interactions go a long way in helping them scale up or rise in their careers.

3. Women must develop their skills in whatever they want to achieve: A recent round-table with leading banks in Sri Lanka (conducted by the Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce) revealed that banks are reluctant to lend to women entrepreneurs as the women lacked basic financial knowledge, produced weak project proposals and displayed tardiness when approaching banks for business loans. Although the women SMEs had fabulous business ideas, presenting themselves and their proposals in a professional, coherent manner, was sadly lacking. This was a great eye-opener that we women need to ‘up our game’ ourselves and seriously gather the required knowledge and skills to present our case with aplomb and not be turned down.


09Linda Speldewinde

Founder and MD, Academy of Design and Founder, Sri Lanka Design Festival

When it comes to women and work, I think there are many voices for the problems that surround us instead of the possibilities of what women in Sri Lanka can do and that in itself is an issue. Most women in our country are educated, have the luxury of having trusted parents or family to look after their children when at work, etc. I think more and more girls from a school age need to be helped to focus on the positives, be brave, follow their dreams and make a change in this world and know that they can do that. Instead, usually girls are ‘groomed’ to get a degree, a job, get married, and have children – and the dream stops there, which is sad.




10Crysanthi Thambiah

Director, HNB Grameen Finance Ltd. 

One of the key challenges I faced was being a woman of strength; being strong is always seen as a masculine quality, but management needs strength and often peers and subordinates see it more as tough, bossy, harsh – words that are never used on a male superior.

With time as you continue to be consistent and sincere, the very same people who misunderstood you understand your sense of purpose; the way forward is to be courageous, be yourself and challenge the role society offers you. Women in management have to be women of strength without losing the gentleness of being a woman (nurturer).

Another challenge was playing the roles of mother, daughter, friend and leader, and doing it successfully without letting anyone down; as it is said the biological clock and the career clock are in total conflict with each other, a healthy and delicate balance must be met. You have to set yourself some priorities; for me it was my child, so quality time spent with her was important without it having a bearing on my work. One must remember that children need you only for a period of time and that has to be a priority in order for the rest of it to run smoothly.

Certain female traits are seen as less than charming in a management setting, therefore it’s vital to be seen as empathetic rather than emotional, and detail-oriented rather than petty and most importantly to mentor and encourage fellow women, understanding and valuing people was my biggest strength.


11Saskia Fernando

Founder and Director, Saskia Fernando Gallery

There are challenges in business if you are a woman or a man. No doubt there are challenges specific to women and to men, but I feel that focusing on doing something one is passionate about, after completing proper research into the profitability of a venture, is the most important thing.

Some might consider this a luxury, but there are wives and mothers who work two jobs, one to pay the bills and the other building a business they are passionate about simply to make it all work.

To be a successful woman in business you have to be driven, focused, and disciplined while at the same time remembering the beauty of being a woman and enjoying all that life has to offer.




12Sheamalee Wickramasingha

Group Managing Director, Ceylon Biscuits Ltd.

I personally have never looked at my gender when getting involved with work and related committees and boards. I believe I was invited to serve on them to contribute equally to the other members who were generally men. In saying that, I also do find that there is a dearth of women at the top.

In our society a woman is not expected to fraternise with the opposite sex and there are instances where they have to take male colleagues out to dinner, etc., for work. They have to learn to be a part the old boys club which can be a challenge.

Then there is the fact that women need to have the proven credentials to be at the top. If you are a guy there is always a machang not too far away who is there to support you whereas a woman is pretty much on her own at the top, especially when she brings a different perspective to the table.

Overcoming the guilt that you are not doing enough for your family – I do not believe in superwoman. Every choice one makes is at the expense of another. The balance between family and work is a really tough one, especially as the demands at the top do not change based on gender and nor should they. The unfortunate reality is that a woman’s biological clock is parallel to her career and hard choices have to be made.

Today most successful leaders are mindful of the value diversity brings, although there are a few with archaic values still around. Women need to find out how to balance the demands of their careers with their family. The workplace also may have to change to accommodate some flexibility for women with respect to facilities like day care. There should be acceptance of women back into the work force should they choose to leave for a few years to have kids and then come back.

Women themselves must learn to accept nothing less than the fact they can be at the top and don’t need to be second to anyone.


13Gayani de Alwis

Chairperson, Women in Logistics and Transport (WiLAT) Sri Lanka

Outlining key challenges women face as we move on to this year’s international women’s day, it is worth pointing out at the outset that the Sri Lankan Government had the commitment to ensure gender equality and recognised women’s rights since ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1981, however women still experience discrimination in their career lives.

While the State provides equal employment opportunities in public sector employment, there is a wide discrepancy in the law and the reality. Thirty-five years later we still have to speak of glass ceilings, harassment, discrimination, having to perform twice as effectively as men to claim the rightful place. This should not be so when we are living in a country which boasted the first woman Prime Minister of the world.

However, I must say partially that the women are at fault here too. Women have placed boundaries for themselves and majority of the women are still not ready to take on higher responsibilities and progress in their careers. Women must first overcome these barriers they have set upon themselves before pointing fingers at others.

In my opinion we must not fight for parity but vie for the rightful place. Understanding these perhaps should pave the way for the equality that we speak of. Organisations thrive when there is diversity to create value, hence women should behave as women as opposed to emulating men!

The following points can be considered as challenges faced by women

1. Stereotypical way of looking at women

Some professions and roles are culturally perceived to be feminine and others are not suitable for women. This inevitably put lot of pressure on women who want to challenge the norm and want to get into these professions which are considered male dominant. It was interesting at one point logistics was considered a male dominated profession as you may have to deal with all types of transport issues and logistics challenges. I did and delivered differently but actually may have benefited by doing the job as a woman as opposed to emulating a male colleague.

2. Structural issues

  • Supportive company policies for childcare support, flexible working hours, extended maternity leave (this at times prevent one being not considered for jobs), job sharing, career breaks, etc.
  • Personal security due to transportation issues when working late and out of station


3. Family support structure

  • Support from the spouse for dual career roles
  • Extended family support for the career woman

4. Low awareness on career opportunities 

Despite the equal access to women at all levels of education, women in Sri Lanka are still facing discrimination in the employment sector. The majority of Sri Lankan women are employed in plantation, free trade zones, stereotype jobs, foreign employment, etc. Most don’t have access or are unaware of the career opportunities available.

5. Support from male counterparts in the workplace

In 2014 UN women launched the ‘He for She’ campaign to engage men and boys to act as change agents by enlisting 10 top companies to campaign for this and achieve parity by 2030. So it is important to have male supporters for career progression of women.

6. Women supporting women

There is a need for women who have broken the glass ceiling to engage and mentor the next generation of women leaders.


14Sanjeewani De Silva

Head – Corporate Affairs/Brand and Marketing, Standard Chartered Bank

It is encouraging and absolutely satisfying to see many more women taking lead roles in management in Sri Lanka despite the challenges and pressures. The overarching message is that we must never allow these challenges to be prohibitive but be brave, courageous and creative.

Interestingly as I see it the most challenging and stigmatised phenomena is the lifestyle conflicts – social pressures of ensuring the balancing act of being the primary caretaker of the family and a business leader. Whilst many of us brave this challenge, social pressures which lead to a high degree of guilt makes some of us fall victim. At Standard Chartered we have seen many women taking on the challenge courageously with the help of the crèche and the extended maternity leave policy. Many other organisations promote these benefits and are now reaping the results of diversity in their workforce.

Over the years due to stereotyping of leadership styles many women “fear” taking on lead roles. We can be accused of being emotional when we may just be passionate. The important thing is not let your personal style get in the way of being heard. In most instances men use this to their advantage to instil fear among women. Whilst some of us fall victim, most of us take on the challenge to be equally capable in taking on lead roles fearlessly and passionately.

In my 20+ years in the corporate world I have met many women who have been successful as business leaders and I admire them for their courage, leading the way and inspiring others. In my journey there were many men who supported my leadership style with encouragement and there are many others out there who do the same – we salute you!

There are still many obstacles preventing women from taking on lead roles in business management. The silver lining however is that these obstacles are far fewer than what they were some time ago.


15Anusha David

Chairman, Headlines PR

As one of the pioneers in the PR industry, I have been fortunate not to experience gender discrimination in my work, bar one instance. I’m known to be professional and independent (tough is another description levelled at me) and I think my reputation precedes me.

In Sri Lanka and across the globe, women face challenges and issues at work and home every day. Remuneration is an area where women are short-changed against men, who draw much higher salaries for doing the same job. Other challenges include the expectation of running a perfect home and bringing up perfect children while functioning at peak levels in the office. Men need to wake up to reality and shoulder half the responsibilities at home, acknowledging the multiple roles their wives and partners perform.

This problem is especially rampant in the case of women who work out of corporate circles and my heart goes out to them. We live in the 21st century but violence and discrimination against women and the girl child sadly continues at work and home. Legislation isn’t enough – we also need swift and remedial action against the perpetrators in both offices and homes.


16Nisreen Rehmanjee

Vice President – Head of Group Tax, John Keells Holdings 

I have encountered many challenges during the course of my career – and that would hold true for anyone who has worked their way up the corporate ladder. However, I can’t recall a single event that related to or resulted from my being a woman. As such, I may not be the best spokesperson to discuss challenges for women in business or management.

Maybe I’m one of the lucky ones – but looking back I truly believe that my gender has never played any part – either positively or negatively – in whatever I have achieved in my working life. And that I feel is partly because I’ve always demanded that I be treated as a professional – first and last. My being a woman was and is irrelevant to this equation.

Speaking with my women friends and colleagues, I know this does not necessarily ring true for everyone. The most common challenge that I’ve heard is not about the gender biasness of their employer, but whether the labour laws in Sri Lanka truly support working mothers. While I leave it to the experts on this subject to debate the issue, I do believe it’s a valid concern that needs to be addressed sooner than later.

On a final point – I do have an issue with 8 March being celebrated as International Women’s Day. My one question is – why only one day a year?


17Chamila Wickramasinghe

Director, Ceylon Coconut Company

In my opinion, what differentiates men from women in the workplace is the challenge of finding the correct work-life balance, especially if they have a family to care for. If you are single and focused on a career, and you have the skills and knowledge, then in this day and age there should ‘ideally’ be nothing to stop you from getting wherever you want to as long as you persevere (but let’s face it, we don’t always live in an ideal world).

However, when you have to juggle the roles of wife and mother and daughter, one of the main reasons you may feel like you do not want added responsibility in the workplace, and you do not want that promotion and raise which will result in longer hours, is because of that nagging guilt that you feel deep down that you are not giving enough time and energy towards what matters most. And you always wonder if you are doing enough, giving enough, caring enough. Because that’s what daughters, wives and mothers are always ‘supposed to be’ responsible for, making sure everyone else is taken care of. And if you don’t do it right by your definition, then your battle is really with your own conscience.

But what I see is that a lot of women out there have an amazing capacity at taking it all on. There is no right way to do things, so don’t do it any way other than your own way. So as long as you are doing it the best that you can, you can overcome this challenge, and be who you want to be to who or what matters most in your life.


18Sarrah Sammoon

Founding Director of SCG Group/Founder of eVisaLaw Group, Sri Lanka, Relocation Services, SCG Advisory

As in anything, there is always a challenge, and today more and more the key challenges in business remain the same for women and men. Given the additional roles that women play though as daughter, wife, mother, the restraining parameters are increased for women through socio-cultural barriers.

I have been an opportunistic entrepreneur for two decades, and that led me to pioneer a corporate global mobility solutions firm in Sri Lanka 23 years ago. We service clients such as HSBC, Nike, Iluka Resources, Coca Cola among a few and HNW individuals. I created a niche service.

Implications that may have affected me as a women is not something I have given thought about at all. My environment at home growing up was free of gender inequality. I walk into a room of businessmen only where there is poor representation of women, which is more often than I like, and I embrace the fact that I am different, I am a woman. Yes I think differently, so I can add value to your conversation. That has worked well for my revenue.

I firmly believe that financial independence is the strongest factor that females should have along which comes freedom of choice. So both as a member of the Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce in Sri Lanka and also as a mentor to women who seek financial independence, there are several key challenges that women in Sri Lanka face. This is important to address, as this restricts the majority of our population to enter the business world and others in it from scaling up.

Doing work with senior advisors and holding focus group discussions and interviews with KIIS, the common challenges they face are with access to information and knowledge e.g. to start up a business, product knowledge; inability to prepare a strategic plan, poor financial literacy skills that keep them from approaching banks for loans, inadequate knowledge of alternative funding available for business start-ups and growth. Further, even with a passionate idea and determination to start their product or service, with a poor network they have no access to markets especially internationally. Getting their company on a global platform gets limited due to inadequate knowhow to operate social media.

The women who are also wives, once they start the business due to the limited access to finance and to lack of knowledge or guidance, tend to lose control of their business to their spouses who may have a better knowhow. This lack of agency arises from the different priorities and several roles women play.

Recently we did this conversation platform, where three women, each from the small, medium and large sector, shared their success stories with female entrepreneurs. One of the panellists spoke about how she obtained funding from an angel investor, and it was the first time the entire group in the audience had heard about this option. Dissemination of information has to take a strong leap up.

We also tend to lose women to motherhood; this is where creating an environment for capacity training in conducting virtual businesses and flexible working hours would add significant value to both our business environment and labour market.

These challenges can be met stronger with the correct mindset, that we are not victims but in fact an emerging market in emerging markets as Gayle Lemmon would like to say.


19Rajini de Silva Mendis

Chairperson, Ebert Silva Holidays

The glass ceiling that prevents women from reaching top positions in business and management is definitely cracking, but still intact! More women than ever before are in management and business, but there are still many challenges faced by women to arrive at the top of the corporate ladder.

Among the challenges faced by women include age-old gender stereotypes, where men and women are expected and perceived to perform different social and economic roles. Family responsibilities and male-dominated corporate culture are two cogent obstacles. These are largely influenced by cultural, religious and social norms that date back centuries but remain deeply etched in all regions, even though the world of work and society has greatly changed. Historically, this has transformed into specific occupations being considered more suitable either for men or for women.

Traditionally, management, business and decision-making in the public arena is still viewed as the domains of men. As women constitute half the world’s population, they have much to contribute, but given that their ‘assigned’ gender role by society is primarily of ‘care givers’, perceptions in the workplace of their potential and capability in leadership have been limited. Another imperative obstacle that overshadows women’s contribution to businesses across all social and cultural contexts is their ability to balance work and family responsibilities. The two most challenging, but nevertheless, rewarding endeavours for a woman is raising a family and heading a business, both being full time commitments demanding patience, perseverance, passion and love. Trying to achieve this subtle and elusive work-life balance, I believe, determines the true success of a woman in business and life.

Even though the age-old perceptions are now being shattered by inspiring women in business and management across the globe, it still remains deep in the psyche of a broad spectrum of people. The Fortune 500 Companies have only 16.1% of female Board Members and only 24 female CEOs.  This is, however, encouraging, since in 1998 there were only two CEOs in Fortune 500 Companies. Some of the famous and notable CEOs include Mary Barra of General Motors, Ursula Burns of Xerox, Lynn Good of Duke Energy, Ellen Kullman of Du Ponte, Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo., Virginia Rometty of IBM and Meg Whitman of HP to name a few.  All these CEOs are very well respected in the corporate sphere and interestingly it is documented by Bloomberg Inc. that female CEOs generally operate and manage the corporates much better than their male counterparts.

The “glass walls” within hierarchal structures that reproduce occupational segregation also create subtle barriers making career pathways different for women compared to men. Yet today, women are catching up and surpassing men in academic achievement. Women have made many gains in access to education and thereby increased access to decision making in the corporate arena.  Today, a third of the world’s enterprises are run by women, and their management skills are increasingly recognised as well. There is more and more evidence that achieving gender balanced and diverse management teams at all levels in the hierarchy produces positive business outcomes. It is indisputable that the increasing presence of women in senior management roles is influencing methods of decision-making and positively changing management cultures.

Therefore the impediments faced by women, more than half of the world’s population, to positively contribute their talent in business and management should be addressed.  Establishing high-level corporate leadership for gender equality, Promote education, training and professional development for women implementing measures for equal treatment for all women and men, respect and support human rights and nondiscrimination among others need to be focused on.

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