March 1, 2023
Good afternoon on this very first day of International Women’s month! Thank you, American Chamber of Commerce, and especially Vrai for organizing this event and inviting me to join you in exploring the important topic of the retention and re-absorption of women in the workforce. I’m so glad to see both women and men in the audience, because we often mistake women’s rights and women’s advocacy as something just for women – and it certainly is not. We need allies and champions of both genders, across the private sector, academia, civil society, and government to all recognize this is a shared challenge and seek shared solutions.
First, let me provide some context on the issue of women’s economic empowerment. Women make up slightly more than half of the world’s population, and yet they face persistent barriers to full economic participation. Globally, women earn only 77 cents (still) for every dollar earned by men, and they are disproportionately represented in low-wage, low-skilled jobs. This not only limits their economic opportunities, but also hinders economic growth and development at the national level.
Now let’s look at 75 years ago since that is when Sri Lanka gained independence and that’s the year we established U.S.- Sri Lankan diplomatic relations. I don’t have the data for Sri Lanka then, but in 1948 women’s labor force participation in the United States was 33%; that figure almost doubled 50 years later. In Sri Lanka, can you guess what percentage that is today? Only 32% of women participated in the labor force in 2021, compared to 71% of men. So, Sri Lanka’s figures today equal to the figure in the U.S. from 1948. This gender gap is not only short-sighted, soul-crushing, and unfair, but it also limits the potential of the Sri Lankan economy. We’ve seen some great strides though as Sri Lankan women have taken senior jobs and ambassadorial posts, the first woman was elected to be the President of the Colombo Club this year for the first time ever in its 152-year history, and our recent multilateral joint naval exercises included a Sri Lanka female navy diver for the first time. And let’s not forget, by increasing women’s economic participation, Sri Lanka could potentially add $20 billion to its GDP by 2025. I’m sure you’ll agree Sri Lanka can use $20 billion or so right now in its economy.
So, we know the problem; now what can we do about it? How do we retain talented women in the workplace when there are childcare, eldercare, and other pressures that dissuade women from continuing their careers? Companies can offer childcare programs or credits and flexible work schedules. We can challenge the norms of women doing the majority of household work and childcare duties. We can give women the equal opportunity to compete for promotions and work overtime in the evenings. We can recognize and reward women for good work just as we do men. We can have men speak up when you see female colleagues being mistreated or not given opportunities even though they are equally or more qualified. We can help young women thrive through internships and mentoring programs. We can increase the number of women on the Amcham Board beyond just one.
I’m proud to say the United States has made efforts to help women in Sri Lanka have access to resources and training to get them into the workforce and stay there. First, we aim to increase access to finance for women entrepreneurs. Access to capital is critical for starting and growing a business, but women entrepreneurs often face higher barriers to financing than their male counterparts. I’ve heard directly from female small business owners who say they just don’t know where to go to seek financing. To address this, the United States is working with Sri Lankan financial institutions to increase lending to women-owned businesses, and we are supporting initiatives that provide training, financial literacy, and mentorship to women entrepreneurs. We were pleased to provide funding to Hatch Works to launch AccelerateHer – the first female-focused business accelerator in Sri Lanka. When I come across some of these markets around Colombo, I’ve heard from women, many who started their businesses online from their homes during the pandemic, out of necessity or boredom; now thriving and creating a new path in entrepreneurship.
Second, we aim to increase women’s participation in the formal economy. Women in Sri Lanka are disproportionately represented in the informal sector, where they often lack legal protections and benefits such as paid leave and social security. We are supporting efforts to promote formalization of the economy, including through initiatives that provide legal and regulatory support to women-owned businesses.
Third, we address gender-based discrimination and violence. Gender-based discrimination and violence are significant barriers to women’s economic participation and overall well-being. The United States is supporting initiatives that promote gender equality and combat gender-based violence, including through partnerships with civil society organizations and the Sri Lankan government.
Finally, we aim to promote women’s leadership and decision-making. Women are often underrepresented in leadership positions, both in the public and private sectors. The United States is supporting initiatives that promote women’s leadership and decision-making, including through training and mentorship programs. I see we have a representative from We Connect International here today – a global program that the State Department supports to get practical skills and tools into the hands of Sri Lankan women.
When women have equal economic opportunities, they are better able to support themselves and their families, which leads to stronger communities and economies. In fact, research shows that companies with more women in leadership positions tend to have higher profitability and better performance overall. I would like to think that at my embassy, with women leading key sections including Security, building operations, consular, public affairs, political, and Peace Corps, that we are bringing more diversity of ideas and problem solving to our senior leadership team.
So, let me leave you with this: Promoting women’s economic empowerment is not only the right thing to do; it is also the smart thing to do. By tapping into the full potential of half of the population, Sri Lanka can accelerate its economic growth and development, and improve the lives of all its citizens. One of the brightest moments of my first year here was when I met a group of young female prefects at a school near Kandy. I’ll never forget their faces. They told me they had just as big dreams as the boys. They told me they were just as smart as the boys – I told them they were right.
So, I challenge each and every one of you here today. By the next International Women’s month in March 2024, what can your company and your organization do, what policies and programs will you implement, how will you as leaders and executives make sure you set the tone and standards for others to follow to fully empower women and retain talent? I look forward to being right here a year from now to hear what you’ve accomplished. Thank you.