Ambassador Alaina B. Teplitz’s Keynote Remarks at AmCham Panel Discussion “Empowering the Female Workforce”

June 25, 2019

Good afternoon, I’m happy to provide some food for thought as we talk about this topic.  As Nuzreth said, I’m interested in this topic and she told me when we first met, oh by the way, we’re doing this series and I leapt on the opportunity.  So thank you for indulging me for a moment on something that’s obviously near and dear to my heart.

I wanted to share thoughts on enabling, encouraging, and empowering women in the workplace, and do this in a way that kind of leads you from the situation in Sri Lanka to what we can do as individuals.  I think that part of why you are present is to find out what you can do to make a difference in your workplaces and your environments.  So bear with me for a few minutes, but I’m going to get there.

I want to start with why women’s participation in the workforce is in the national interest.  Sri Lanka’s national interest, the national interest of the United States, any country.

We’ve all seen the data, and I think there was sort of a concept paper that went out from AmCham to show that societies that include robust female participation are not only just societies, maybe wise and enlightened societies, but they are more prosperous societies.

A recent study by McKinsey showed that every economy in the world could stand to improve by increasing the percentage of women in the labor force.  So this is a fact.  And in fact it can be noted that in a full potential scenario where women play an identical role to men in the workforce, around $28 trillion could be added to the global GDP, just by 2025.  That’s an inconceivable sum almost.  Just by adding women to the workforce.  Nothing else.  That’s a pretty game-changing scenario, I think, and why every nation should be pursuing this.

Our national prosperity – think about this for a minute – our national prosperity, our national security depends on a thriving economy, right?  And increasing female participation is a great way to grow that economy.  And it’s not just fair and just in terms of gender equity.  Whatever nation you may call home, increasing female participation is in our national interest.  It’s a national security objective.

So where do we stand in Sri Lanka?  I’ll refer to the United States a little bit, but we’re all here, many of you are Sri Lankan, and of course this is our operating environment.  So, let’s start with where we are now.

The World Bank does report that Sri Lanka has shown remarkable persistence in low female labor participation.  Thirty-six percent for women compared with 75 percent for the same age cohort of men.  It’s very low.  In fact, I noted on the AmCham sheet that the numbers have been going down.

This disparity persists despite overall economic growth and poverty reduction during the past decade.  And while Sri Lanka’s 36 percent female participation is higher than India’s 32 percent, it’s half the OECD average of 64 percent.  So just imagine where the potential exists.  And of course, if you assume that women are 50 percent of the population you can see there’s a long way to go.

There are many reasons why only a third of Sri Lankan women are participating in the workforce.  All of them, I think, can be overcome.  Perhaps with time, but they can be overcome.

Household roles and responsibilities obviously fall disproportionately on women.  That has also been identified through studies.  Society places constraints on women’s mobility.  That is very problematic, depending on where they are in the workforce.  Education is not providing women skills demanded by job markets.  And gender discrimination as far as recruitment, hiring, and the promotion of women.  So many reasons why women might even enter the workforce and then leave, or not even seek to enter the workforce.  So many barriers.

I think, however, we also have to think not just about the sheer volume of women in the workforce.  Clearly higher percentages are beneficial, but it is a quality versus quantity equation that we also have to consider.

So, I’m raising that caution that it can’t just be numbers.  We don’t just need more jobs for more women.  I think we also have to look at better jobs.  That’s what we need.  We need more fulfilling opportunities.  We need more empowering roles.  And where women can not only achieve their career goals, but have a meaningful impact on society.  It’s not just adding a thousand clerk positions, it’s making sure that women can rise to the highest level possible shown by their own merits.

It’s not enough to hire young women at the low end.  That’s an opportunity.  We also have to look at how to support them as they rise.

We need women attorneys.  We need women carpenters.  We need women executives and hotel chefs.  We need women pilots and doctors.  And we need women counselors and coaches.  We probably even need some women who can drive tuk-tuks.  But we really need women also in these serious and professional roles, and I think cultivating women to join those ranks is important.

So, consider this.  In the United States, women fill only 10 percent of private sector senior executive positions in the S&P 1500 companies.  The American government is a little better, with women filling 34 percent of senior civil service jobs.  But neither one-third nor one tenth is really good enough.  So, in both private and public sectors in the United States and Sri Lanka, we lag.  We have a lot of room for improvement.

So how do we increase women’s participation?  How do we get at not just the quantity, but how do we get at the quality that is also going to yield dividends?

We need to address two issues.  I’ll call them hardware and software.

Hardware is the structural environment of the economy and of the workforce.  Hardware is labor laws that promise equal rights and equal opportunities.  It’s a legal system that gives women and men a fair hearing of their grievances.  It’s a school system that promotes quality education for all people regardless of gender, race, religion, or ethnicity.  These things are important, like the frame is important for a building.  Like the backbone is important for a human body.  That’s the hardware.

I’m going to let other people talk about the hardware, and I’m sure there will be many comments on the panel.  I actually really want to focus on the software.

One of the key issues I think that is a barrier for women in the workplace is unconscious bias.  The software ultimately are our attitudes and beliefs about women in the workforce.  We need to enable, encourage, and empower women.  We need to challenge ourselves to overcome something we call unconscious bias.  You might ask, what is that?  Perhaps some of you have heard of it.  It’s been a topic of discussion.  I don’t think this is new, but it’s something perhaps many are holding at arm’s length if you’ve heard about it at all.

Unconscious bias is a form of mental stereotyping, and although unconscious bias is often unintentional, hence the unconscious part, it is a barrier to women’s full participation in the workforce.  So, I want to share six examples of unconscious bias.  And I’m going to thank the international Lean In organization for these insights, but I think you might recognize some of these descriptions when you think about your interactions.

Performance bias is the first of these six.  Performance bias means that we underestimate women’s performance and overestimate men’s performance.  So, consider this.  Major orchestras tried using blind auditions where they could hear the musicians but not see them.  They put them behind a screen.  In that scenario, the odds of women making it past the first round of auditions increased by 50 percent.  So, do you unconsciously associate men with leadership when a woman succeeds at work?  Do you tend to attribute it to luck more than skill or to effort?  Are you like those judges hearing and seeing the audition and assuming the men were playing better than the women, and when that element of the audition was removed, and the music was all that mattered, it confirmed that women were performing quite well?  This is called performance bias.

The second bias is attribution bias, and it means that men often get more credit for success while women receive more blame for failure.  Interestingly, women often predict that they will perform work worse than they really do, while men predict that they will perform better than they really do.  I hear some chuckles in the room.  This is all borne out by studies, I’m not making it up.  You may have observed this in your workplace, however.

The bias plays out in meetings.  This is attribution bias.  This bias plays out in meetings when women are more likely to be talked over, and in one study both men and women interrupted women far more often than they interrupted other men.  Have you ever heard a colleague give credit to a man for something a woman actually accomplished?  Have you thought about the last meeting you attended that had men and women present, how many times you might have interrupted or been interrupted and who was doing the interrupting?  This is something called attribution bias.

The third bias is likeability bias.  With this unconscious predilection there’s the expectation that women conform to a certain stereotype.  That they are kind and communal.  Not to say that women should be mean and unpleasant, but when women assert themselves we tend to like them less.  And in the workplace, we’re more likely to criticize women using these harsh words.  We’re going to say that they’re too aggressive or they’re too bossy, words seldom applied to men.  In fact, when we talk about a man and describe him as aggressive, it’s often a compliment.  It’s completely the reverse.

So here’s the question.  Have you ever reacted negatively to a woman with a strong leadership style?  Or a woman who spoke directly and assertively in meetings or one on one or interactions in a group?  If you have, this is likeability bias.

Maternal bias is yet another on my list.  Maternal bias plays on a false assumption that women are less committed to their careers than men are, especially when they have children.  How many women in this room have children?  How many men have children?  We have a lot of women in this room who come here as parents.  But let me ask the men, do you love your children less than your wife or less than some of the other parents sitting at the tables with you?  No.  I think we all have respect in our families and we love our children equally, both men and women.  But we sometimes don’t bring that knowledge with us to the workplace when we’re engaging with people.

Research actually shows that this material bias is the strongest type of gender bias that’s out there.  One study found that when hiring managers knew a woman had children she was 79 percent less likely to be hired.  Seventy-nine percent.  So, it’s almost impossible for her to get the job if she had kids and that was a known factor in the application.  This is really huge, 79 percent.  So, have you ever thought that you were helping a woman succeed at home by giving her less challenging work?  Or by sending a male colleague on a business trip?  I’m going to help out.  I know this is difficult.  She’s a working mother so I’m going to make it easy for her.  This is maternal bias.

What’s the solution to this?  Giving equal opportunity to men and women and let them tell you when it’s too much.  Everybody has different family circumstances.  It’s hard for the outsider to judge what they can handle and what they can’t, or what moment in their lives might require them to be more present.  How they juggle things with their spouse.  But if you’re assuming that you’re offering a break because there are children in the family involved, think twice about that.

Affinity bias.  That’s the last one on my list.  Affinity bias means that we unconsciously gravitate toward people who are similar to ourselves.  Similar in appearance, beliefs or background.  For example, hiring managers spend more time interviewing candidates who remind them of themselves.  We just like them more.  We’re more comfortable talking with people who appear like ourselves, who think like us.  Mentors devote more energy to colleagues who are more like them.  So how does this affect women in the workplace?  I gave you the statistic earlier about the United States and the small number of women who occupy senior leadership positions.  I think it was ten percent, 14 percent, something very low.  When men occupy most of the senior leadership positions and many mentors suffer from affinity bias, and this is true in Sri Lanka as well where you have mostly men in the key seats, it’s much harder for women to move up.  They lack the network and the mentoring that might be present for men or others who sort of conform to whatever the norm is in that corporate culture.  This is affinity bias that’s working against female empowerment in the workplace.

Women experience also I think not just these biases, but a double discrimination.  Maybe a final thought on the list.

In the United States this tends to break down along racial lines.  So black and Hispanic women are particularly under-represented in senior leadership because they come behind white men, white women, and men of color.  They’re women, and in our demographic they’re a minority.  In Sri Lanka, this double discrimination I’m sure also affects women because of ethnicity, religion, mother tongue, whatever the discrimination matrix is.  If you have more than one of those factors you are going to have some challenges.  And in a workplace that’s already biased against women based on the ways of thinking, the mental stereotyping I mentioned, double discrimination really adds insult to injury.

So, I like to think that the glass is half full and that problems can be solved.  I noted earlier that some of the problems that keep women out of the workplace in Sri Lanka can be overcome.  Issues like household chores, even issues like societal perception of roles.  Those things can change over time and we can challenge ourselves.

So, we are not helpless either in the case of unconscious bias.  This is something that we can address.  And I’m talking to you specifically about this because I’m hoping you will take with you not only the idea of challenging your own assumptions, but sharing this knowledge in your workplace.

As leaders we can enable, encourage, and empower women in our spheres of influence.  We can recognize unconscious bias in ourselves and in those around us.  And when we recognize it, we can then take steps to address it.  Sometimes just naming the bias, intentionally calling it out, can do wonders in shrinking its power.

The next time you have a staff meeting, tote up who’s interrupting who and how often, and then share with people those specifics and have a conversation about the bias that might be present.

Talk to people about the maternal bias.  Gather the parents in the workforce, the men and the women, and have a discussion about what their needs are so that you can challenge your own assumptions about what’s going to benefit those employees.

Use different terms when you describe men and women in the workplace who are competently performing their jobs and think about terms that are not laden with emotion.

I think as leaders, it’s incumbent on us to build the hardware and install the software.  We’ve got to create the legal and structural framework of equality, then we have to breathe life into that framework through our own attitudes and actions.  I try and do this at the U.S. Embassy, with my team — both Americans and Sri Lankans — by sharing concepts of bias.  We have looked at how to in fact create more gender equity in our workforce at large and in fact have confronted some of the same barriers that keep women out of the workforce here generally.  But we have it high on our agenda as something we know we need to manage in order to allow people to realize their full potential and to allow us as an organization to be productive.

When men and women participate fully together, our societies, our economies, and our nations are definitely better for it.  The data supports us in this.  But it does take individuals to engender change, and to recognize there is something going on.  So it is not enough simply to hire to numbers.  It is not enough simply to mentor a female employee.  It is not enough to look simply at getting somebody behind a desk or behind a sewing machine or behind a worktable or driving a bus or doing whatever it is they’re going to do.  It’s also got to be about breathing life into their aspirations and fully empowering them in the workplace.  That can’t happen until unconscious bias is eliminated.

I look forward to engaging with you more during the panel discussion and the Q&A on this topic.  Thank you for the opportunity to share some of these thoughts.