Ensuring gender equality and sustainability | Sunday Observer
We need to move away from the "breadwinner" model

Ensuring gender equality and sustainability

5 March, 2023

It is often said that there are hardly any limits to what women can accomplish. No country can ever truly flourish if it knowingly or unknowingly suppresses or undermines the achievements of its female population.

Just as renowned novelist and women’s rights activist Maya Angelou did, all women would love to be known as intelligent, courageous, loving, and exemplary.

Irrespective of their commendable achievements over the past decades in various spheres or social institutions such as marriage, career or political leadership, ‘less-seen’ or 'lesser-known' barriers still hold back women at work in today’s largely digitalised set-up.

Women’s Day 2023

DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality, is the theme for UN International Women’s Day 2023. Even though humans largely depend on technological integration where almost everything currently goes through a digital process -whether attending a university course, booking a medical doctor, making a bank transaction or holding an urgent office meeting - the stark truth is that 37 percent of women still do not use the internet. According to the United Nations Organization, 259 million fewer women have access to the Internet than men, even though they account for nearly half the world's population.

Through this year’s theme DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality, the United Nations along with UN Women “recognise and celebrate success stories of women and girls who are championing the advancement of transformative technology and digital education.”

The UN firmly holds the view that if women are denied of internet access or if they feel unsafe online, they will not be able to develop and sharpen the digital skills that are required to browse the web or use digital spaces when necessary. This will have a negative impact on their performance, diminishing their opportunities to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) related fields.

“By 2050, 75 percent of jobs will be related to STEM areas. Yet today, women hold just 22 percent of positions in artificial intelligence, to name just one,” states the UN report.

This year’s Women’s day which falls on March 8 will explore “the impact of the digital gender gap on widening economic and social inequalities,” while also focusing on the importance of protecting the rights of women and girls in digital spaces and addressing online gender-based violence.

Female Labour Market representation

Even though Sri Lankan women have achieved considerable success over the years in various spheres including economic empowerment, a lot more still needs to be done. When asked whether female labour market representation is satisfactory Professor Dileni Gunewardena of the Department of Economics and Statistics, University of Peradeniya, responded in the negative.

“Female labour market representation remains poor in Sri Lanka: female labour force participation has been stagnant at around 35 percent for at least two decades (male LFP has been on average around 75 percent over the same period). 60 percent of women who are not in the labour force give the reason for it as housework,” she said.

Prof. Gunewardena added that according to the Department of Census and Statistics Time Use Survey in 2017, the average Sri Lankan woman spends about 5.6 hours in unpaid work and care work, and the average Sri Lankan man spends 1.5 hours in the same. The average Sri Lankan woman spends almost 2 hours a day in food preparation, compared to 12 minutes for the average Sri Lankan man.

“In a study I did with Ashvin Perera at Verite Research, we evaluated the economic value of this work, and found that the value of such work was about 14 percent of GDP (ranging from 10-40 percent, depending on the wage rate used). 86 percent of this work is done by women, so the contribution of unpaid work by women in Sri Lanka is 12 percent of GDP, while the contribution of men is only 2 percent of GDP.”

As she highlighted quite correctly “women do make an economic contribution, but it is not in the labour market. Because this work is unpaid, it is invisible, and as a result, does not contribute to their economic empowerment.”

As we are all aware, the Covod-19 pandemic has taken a heavy toll on every aspect of women’s life including the female workforce across the globe.

As Prof. Gunawardena noted most likely, due to the pandemic and the current economic crisis, women's burden of unpaid work has probably increased, because they have to work harder to make ends meet with the few resources they have, finding cheaper sources of food and fuel - possibly spending more time growing food, and collecting firewood, etc.

Economic decision making

When asked about the position of Sri Lankan women in terms of economic decision making she noted that it is hard to give an accurate answer as no data is available on the subject.

“However, I would say that while their economic contribution is high, their agency, in terms of economic decision making, is probably low. This is because relative to men, women are more time-poor - so they are less likely to be involved in decision-making bodies, or to apply for positions at work which demand greater responsibility, because of work-family conflict.”

“Moreover, they may also be overlooked for such promotions because of the perception that they don't have the time and commitment to give what it takes. However, we have had some wonderful recent examples of the recognition of women's leadership, such as Kasthuri Chellarajah Wilson, CEO of Hemas, and we can hope that more companies will follow this example,” she added.

She said that there is a lot more to be done to ensure economic independence for Sri Lankan women.;

“Firstly, we have to seriously consider the obstacles that impede women,” she emphasized.

She referred to a recent study by Verite Research that found that the perceived cost of working is 89 percent of expected earnings.

“The study found that affordability and reliability of childcare as well as patriarchal cultural norms and expectations played a pivotal role in shaping the pecuniary and nonpecuniary “cost” that women bear to engage in paid work. Their responsibility for care work and unpaid work is a big issue - this has to be reduced - by more employer provision of care, and state facilities and subsidies for care, both childcare and eldercare.”

She added that safe transport is important, in addition to general safety on the streets and in workplaces.

Prof. Gunawardena’s other recommendations are as follows;

“Improving the workplace environment and making it more women-friendly is needed, as well as addressing norms that stereotype women and prescribe very limiting gender roles which hamper their ability to be economically independent.”

She finally highlighted that it is a dire need to move away from the "breadwinner" model if we want women to be given equal economic status as men.