Women in Employment:
Still Gender Blind?
International Women’s Day falls today:
It is quite interesting to examine the participation of women in the
labour market, in the face of dynamic socio-economic circumstances. One
may be inclined to query as to the fact, whether women had been
excluded, barred or more seriously been expelled from the labour market
rewards originating in the course of globalisation.
Women in the Sri Lankan society are modeled and stereotypically being
viewed as housewives, thus clarifying the lower levels of female
participation in the labour force.
Delving into the history of the position and the status of a typical
woman in the traditional Ceylonese civilisation, Robert Knox, a captive
in the island of Ceylon for nearly twenty years presents a magnificent
insight to the height of subordination of the Ceylonese women in his
account; “A Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon in the
Thus, what was expected of women remained unsophisticated and was to
play a passive role as a housewife. As Knox elaborates, the women’s
housewifery was to beat the rice out of the husk; to cook meals; fetch
wood and water; cut herbs, pumpkins, and to fetch home the cattle. It
was also their duty to wait and serve their husbands while they eat, and
when they have done, then to eat what they have left.
Thus proving the gendered roles males and females play in the
society, the eminent sociologist, Talcott Parson argues, that to
function most effectively, the family requires adults who specialize in
Parson and Bales contended that women take the expressive and
emotionally supportive role and men the instrumental and practical role
with two complementing each other. As such the women become anchored in
the family as wives, mothers and household managers while men become
anchored in the occupational world outside the home.
Women in education
Irrespective of the enhanced female participation in the education
system, one would witness lower levels of female participation in the
labour force. As such, one may tend to conclude that the benefits of
female education had not been passed on as labour market benefits for
In the Pre-British Ceylon, the education of boys was given a
prominent place as opposed to girls’ education. The education of boys
was carried out by Buddhist priest at the village temple, the home of
the incumbent of the nearest vihara.
Women in employment
The issue of female education became controversial in the 19th
century Britain with reverberations in the colonies. Missionaries,
secular reformers and feminists brought the question of girls’ schools
to the fore.
The underlying argument for the above was that the conversion of men
to Christianity would mean little if they married heathen women and was
reverted to the old ways.
In 1938 the education in Government schools made free of charge as a
consequence of the Universal Franchise granted in 1931. With the
introduction of free education, female participation in education rose
Data for 2005 explains that of the 3,942,412 students in schools,
1,978,057 were females while 1,964,355 were males. For the year 2005/06,
the number of undergraduate entrants was in total 15305. This comprised
7051 males and 8254 females.
Irrespective of the higher participation of females in the education
sector, the benefits of such have not been transferred on to the labour
market in terms of women in employment. The labour force participation
rates for females are almost 50% to that of the males.
For 2007, quarter 1, the male labour force participation was 68.1%
while for females it stood at 33.2%. Considering the unemployment rates,
it becomes evident that the female unemployment rate is almost twice
that of the male unemployment rates. For 2007 quarter 1, the
unemployment rate for males stood at 4.4%, while for females it stood at
Further analysing unemployment rate by educational level (G.C.E A/L
and above) gives evidence of an 18.4% unemployment among females and 7%
among males for 2007 quarter 1. Another factor that concerns females is
the lower empowerment levels. The gender empowerment index in Sri Lanka
stands at 31% which is lower than the average for all developing
A perusal of available statistics shows that women’s involvement in
the labour force is mostly at non-decision making levels. In the major
occupational categories, women’s involvement in administrative,
managerial, professional and technical occupations is far less than in
clerical work, sales work and semi-skilled and unskilled labour.
Women in plantations
Another significant feature of women in employment in Sri Lanka is
the concentration of women into sectors that are dominated by low cost,
low skilled female labour. Presently tea, garments and labour exports
are the three corner stones of the economy contributing over 90% of the
total foreign exchange earning of the country. Women are the majority in
the labour force of these three major sectors.
The British who started the Tea plantations brought in South Indian
labour as the locals were reluctant to accept estate sector jobs. From
the point of view of the British, the Indian labour was much cheaper and
Initially both men and women in equal numbers were employed in
estates. With changes in the Macro-economic environment, men moved out
from the estate sector as they were exposed to more promising jobs.
Women, trying to balance their work with their traditional gendered role
were stuck with the estate sector jobs.
The estate culture is based on a strong hierarchical structure and
the female is considered less privileged. This specific nature
contributed women towards vulnerability and discrimination. Numerous
studies on gender based violence in the plantation sector reveal
dreadful circumstances women face.
Gender based violence is defined as any act that results in or is
likely to result in physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering
to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary
deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life.
A study executed with respect to gender based violence in the
plantation sector reveals that, in terms of gender based violence at the
workplace; on a daily basis the victims identified the kangani as the
most frequent perpetrator (44.4%). Other daily abusers were identified
as the supervisor (22.2%) who ranks above the kangani and others such as
the field officers, assistant field officers and even strangers (22.2%)
and the superintendent (11.1%). With respect to the type of gender based
violence, the women victims reveal that in a majority of cases, it took
the form of physical abuse (43.3%), verbal abuse (35.8%), while sexual
abuse was 19.5% and mental abuse was at least 1.5%.
Alcoholism is seen as another major cause resulting in gender based
violence in the plantation sector. Women happen to face a lot of
hardship to feed the family while their husbands spend their income
totally on alcohol. Financial pressure also puts additional pressure on
the females with the major responsibility of running the family.
Women in garment industry
In the globalising economy free trade zones are dominated by young
female workers. The bulk of these are repetitive at the low-skill and
low wage end of the spectrum. Between 70-80 percent of the labour force
in the garment and apparel sector consists of women.
The majority of these women are unmarried and have secondary school
leaving qualifications. The jobs do not typically correspond to their
training and educational attainments or to their aspirations. The
majority are concentrated in low skilled pursuits with poor career
prospects and many leave after marriage.
Even after two decades of the creation of the zones, married women
make up scarcely 10 percent of the total workforce.
Free trade zones were a result of the open economy. The investors
prefer to have more female employees as the wages for women are
comparatively low and they can be easily controlled compared to men. In
other words females can be easily exploited as opposed to males.
Most female workers in the free trade zones are from rural areas.
Lack of basic infrastructure in the zones makes their living harder.
Although the migration occurs within the country they face enormous
cultural pressure thus putting them to more danger. These females are
being exploited and harassed in the factories by their authorities by
way of unrealistic targets and verbal abuse. These frustrated and
depressed situations are taken advantage of by males outside who cheat
these innocent women.
Women in migration
Migration for employment on a regular and a systematic basis began in
the 1980s with the opening of the economy and the liberalisation
exercise initiated by the then government. Feminization of migration is
one of the foremost trends that a reasonable observer would witness
consequent to screening the data available.
The enhanced female partaking in the foreign employment market is no
doubt most convivial, and one might even construe this as a symbol of
triumph by the part of the women pressure groups’ struggle for equal
employment opportunities for women. Approximately, 60% of the emigrants
are females while the average annual out-migration of females for
foreign employment is around 126,119. It is rather attention-grabbing
that a majority of females out-migrate as housemaids.
The female out-migration as housemaids in the year 2000 was 99,413,
while in 2005; it stood at 125,054, representing a 25% bump over five
years. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates represent the major
destinations of domestic workers in Sri Lanka. With all due regards to
the enhanced female participation in the foreign labour market, we
should never forget that women migrants are one of the most vulnerable
groups in all countries. Countless stories of emigrant Sri Lankan women
being sexually and physically abused by the hosting employer is never an
extraordinary episode. Most migrant women are from the underprivileged
milieus and lack of professional training as housemaids.
On the other hand their English skills lie at a very lower level.
Lack of English skills coupled with low levels of professional skills
makes their labour flexibility and mobility inelastic to
The money transferred to the country in many occasions is being
wasted by their drunkard husbands. Many husbands during the absence of
their wives, carrying extramarital affairs and the education of the
children is being disrupted. As such one should never assume that the
feminization of migration is without its social costs.
Occupational sex discrimination
A plethora of literature exists explicating the lower levels of
female employment in diverse sectors. One major explanation for the
lower prevalence of female employment results from gender discriminatory
recruitment and hiring practices.
Many advertisements instead of merely stating the educational
qualifications required and the necessary years of experience, state the
required sex of the employee. This is due to the fact that many managers
have a strong preference for males over females when confronted with
similar educational qualifications. In a recent newspaper survey
undertaken for the period May 2006 to April 2007, analyses local
vacancies by sex and by occupation. Of the total, 32% of the vacancies
specify the gender required while 68% does not specifically state the
However, of the vacancies which specify the required gender, 21%
prefers females, while 78% prefers males. Employment data for 2007
explains that the female participation in agriculture, forestry, fishery
was 41%, while it was 46% in manufacturing, 2% in construction, mining,
quarry, electricity, gas and water supply, 24% in wholesale and retail
trade, repair of motor vehicles, motorcycles and personal and household
goods, 28% in financial intermediation and real estate, renting and
business activities, 27% in public administration, defence and
compulsory social security. Another feature with respect to women in
employment is the paucity of women in decision-making positions. A
research carried out on one hundred private sector companies reveals
that irrespective of the fact that women comprised almost 46% of the
total number of employees, 95% of the women were in the “workers
category, skilled and unskilled”, where jobs at this level requires
little decision-making. It also finds that, of the total 104
representative of the apex decision-making bodies, only 5 were women,
thereby illustrating the paucity of women in the decision-making
positions. Women have been more vulnerable to unemployment particularly
in the context of their rising educational levels.
Women in employment portray a social blindness that is appalling in
the light of extensive analysis and writing on the role of women in
employment. In the recent past, the female labour force participation
rates have been growing at a much faster rate compared to males. It is
not due to the women’s rising levels of education, but due to
proliferation of opportunities in the labour intensive industries that
demand low skilled, low cost female labour.
One should not underestimate the contribution made by women in
employment to the local economy. Numerous policies, programmes and
initiatives have been initiated at a macro level to address this labour
market inefficiency of discrimination of women in the labour market.
However it is our conception that the answer lies in a bottom-up
approach. A revolution in the ideology with respect to women’s
subordinated position in the society would bring lasting solutions to