Untapped feminine talent | Daily News

Untapped feminine talent

Across the world, International Women’s Day was observed on March 8 to celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. In Sri Lanka, it was celebrated on this day, too. But it was also celebrated again last week, when the Informatics Institute of Technology (IIT) hosted a conference, “She Can: Inspired Women Inspire Women,” centered on women’s empowerment, to mark the occasion of the day. Featuring some of the most renowned women in the business sector, “She Can” was designed by IIT to empower and inspire women of all ages and sectors by allowing them to hear each other’s success stories. And indeed, they did.

Last Thursday evening, nearly one hundred women (and some men too) crowded into one of the event rooms at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall. The event was attended by the cream of Sri Lanka’s business field, corporate professionals secondary and tertiary education students, members of the media and IIT staff. And the audience—a sea of colourful saris, frocks, and pantsuits—was visibly jubilant for the night of programming that awaited them.

First up to speak, with a focus of “Let’s be the change we want to see,” was Nilushi Jayatileke, the Director of Marketing, Personal Care, for Unilever Sri Lanka. She began her speech, during which she encouraged audience participation, by explaining that just 30 percent of Sri Lankan women are employed, and that the majority of those employed are migrant workers and estate workers. She added that women in the country make up jut 2.5 percent of top management roles in the business sector.

Then she arrived at a rather interesting culprit, one of many, for this disparity: women. She explained that women often constrained themselves by not allowing themselves to imagine they could achieve more esteemed positions. According to Jayatileke, women’s career choices have increased in recent years; yet despite this, women’s leadership in the professional sector has dropped.

“Do you think society puts more emphasis on men to succeed than on women to succeed?”, she asked the audience. Most responded in the affirmative.

One reason, she said, is gender stereotyping of careers. “Are females supposed to be nurses and teachers, versus doctors and engineers?”, she asked. She further prompted the audience to acknowledge whether they promote these stereotypes. “Do we also look at it like that? Are we more comfortable going to a male doctor versus a female doctor? Are we comfortable with our structural engineers being female? Should the sales force be male?”

The point, Jayatileke insisted, is that people have latched onto these stereotypes and follow them, involving themselves in safe yet stereotypical roles. So women must get beyond that.

She also explained that men in women’s lives must be more involved in the domestic sphere to allow women to venture more into the business sphere. This would involve liberating both the men and the women of the country. And finally, she insisted that women stop calling each other and allowing themselves to be called bossy, which is a gendered term.

Next up to speak was Nilusha De Silva, the Founder and Managing Director of Skrumptious, a locally based brownie and dessert company. In her presentation, De Silva took a different and more personal approach, using humor to address the issue of women in entrepreneurship through invoking her own experience as a businessperson.

She said that before starting scrumptious, she wanted to answer the question of why Sri Lankan food brands have not, for the most part, gone global. She found that the reason was consistency and uniformity, and was then able to get her product down to a simple-step process.

Speaking of difficulties she faced when trying to start her own business, De Silva surprised the audience by saying that she had no issues with men.

The biggest lesson she said she learned was that the world did not revolve around her, and that people did not have to acquiesce to whatever she requested.

“[Starting your own business] takes a while, but that’s why your success becomes a success. If everybody says yes, if everybody agrees with you, if everybody says you’re the best, you’re not going to do any of these things well,” she said.

“I took everything in life easy before I started Skrumptious, and this company and this business really changed a lot of aspects in my life for the better.”

Finally, she dismissed the notion that pervades some aspects of common culture, which claims that it is better or more prestigious to start one’s own company than to be an employee of another.

“Some people think it’s a greater achievement to do your own business. Actually, it is an achievement but it isn’t a greater achievement than what you’re doing at your organization. I left the corporate field because I realized that I was not good at it, I was not good at being an employee, I didn’t have the skills that were required. It’s up to you to decide what is right for you.”

During the tea break, the audience members mingled with the speakers and each other, and an excited buzz permeated the halls of BMICH. Both the women and men in attendance could be heard discussing how much they’d already learned over the course of the evening, and how impressed they were with the speakers they’d heard.

After the tea break, there were two more speakers. Niloufer Anverally, the Founder & Managing Director of Cotton Collection, spoke about “Women in Leadership” — what it means to be a female leader and what struggles female leaders face. Shehani Seneviratne, the Chief Operating Officer of 99X Technology Ltd, spoke about “Women in IT,” outlining the barriers to entry and more for women interested in entering the technology sector.

The evening ended with a lovely panel featuring all the speakers, taking questions from the audience and remarking on the similarities and differences in each of their journeys. The imagery of the powerful Sri Lankan women on stage was inspiring and motivating.

And even more, it reinforced a quote by Hillary Clinton which was read at the beginning of the evening:

“Women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world. It is past time for women to take their rightful place, side by side with men, in the rooms where the fates of peoples, where their children’s and grandchildren’s fates, are decided.”

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