From sticky floor to glass ceiling | Sunday Observer

From sticky floor to glass ceiling

Two women, Gayani de Alwis, a supply-chain management expert and Dhashma Karunaratne, a maritime industry professional have been working tirelessly to attract a ‘more diverse workforce’ and to remove poor perceptions about career opportunities in the transport and logistics sector in Sri Lanka over the past several years. In an interview with the Business Observer, the two professionals shared their insights on how they plan to bring in more women into the logistics sector - with the support of the major transport and logistics companies and their male counterparts – and with greater emphasis on bridging skills gaps and increasing gender diversity.

Sri Lankan women professionals are yet to own a reasonable stake in the transport and logistics sector’s growing opportunities. In a country where women represent 52 percent of the population, women’s stake in the logistics sector is only 3%. If you study the women representation in the top five logistics companies in the country, the numbers will speak of that ‘absence’.

Leading women in the industry are confident that the next generation of women has a great potential to enter the industry in big numbers, if the current ‘male-dominated’ policies and rules are relaxed and young ones are properly educated about the opportunities in this profession.

Comfort zones

The education system is already moving towards, producing ‘logistics management’ graduates; but sadly women graduates move into ‘comfort zones’ due to lack of awareness about the employment and professional opportunities in the sector.


To bridge this gap, the Women in Logistics and Transport (WiLAT) Sri Lanka was formed in 2013 by an enthusiastic group of women in the industry under Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT) as their women’s forum.

Since then, WiLAT has been actively working towards bringing down the large disparity between men and women in the logistics industry workforce. CILT has 34 branches with a membership of over 34,000 and WiLAT has now expanded its footprint to 19 countries.

“There’s great potential for women to take up employment and rise up to leading positions within the sector, given the fast-changing business environment and export growth.

However, disparities in the industry are yet to be addressed,” says Chairperson, Women in Logistics and Transport (WiLAT) Sri Lanka, Dhashma Karunaratne whose current job is in the maritime industry.

There’s a lot of room for progress and improvement through women’s contributions to the industry. “Organisations have to strive into inclusion and put in place some compelling set of strategies for diversity.

Still the corporate policies and practices in relation with our industry should be reviewed. We expect the companies to do away with unconscious biasness and lead the industry growth with more women professionals,” she said.

Talking about women-unfriendly practices, Karunaratne said, in the port sector there’s an unwritten policy that women can’t access the port after 6 pm although there is no such rule in the legislation. “It is time these policies be reviewed, and facilitation should be promoted; so that more women can enter the field.

“A port is a 24-hour and 365-day operation. In such a situation, women should be given proper working facilities to perform their duty rather than restricting their jobs to a time. It’s not a facilitation to get women into this industry. This is quite different from the other ports we benchmark with.”

Diverse culture

There’s so much of research to prove how diverse organizations – have resulted in good bottom-line. Diversity easily translates into profits, she said in an interview.

Since the inception of WiLAT Sri Lanka five years ago, the women representatives have been trying to organize the groundwork, find opportunities within the sector, nurture the next generation of women in logistics.

“Our vision is to be the most sought after for advocacy, professionalism and empowerment of women in Supply Chain, Logistics and Transport since its launch WiLAT has come a long way and have made progress. Now we need support from our male counterparts, Academia, government leaders, and corporate leaders to continue our mission. This is the way forward for the industry,” said Gayani de Alwis, the Founding Chairperson and Advisor of WiLAT.

She added, “We are talking about the glass ceiling- but the floor is sticky. When we first launched WiLAT we were addressing the ‘sticky floor’ issues.”

Leading Universities, such as Moratuwa University, Kotalawala Defence University, CINEC Maritime University, NSBM and Ocean University offer degrees in Logistics and Transport and Supply Chain management. According to University sources, the demand for such programs by female students is quite encouraging. But where do they end up professionally?

De Alwis said, the universities should collaborate with the job market and guide the students, especially female students to get in to relevant professional sectors. WiLAT also has launched a mentorship program, called ‘Ignite’ since 2014.

It is a planned mentoring program where both mentors and those who wish to be mentored, mentees are chosen from a list and matched through a formal procedure according to their career paths, talents and interests. She said it is very encouraging to see that senior ladies in the industry volunteering to support these young females.

Over the years this program has received accolades and “Ignite” is the globally run WiLAT mentorship program across WiLAT countries and De Alwis is the Global Coordinator for mentorship in WiLAT.

Emotional intelligence

Karunaratne says, the corporate sector should now look at the logistics, maritime and transport sector as one large industry where both men and women can work in unison.

The policies are still very supportive of men. This should change and the companies should welcome women’s educational qualifications plus their emotional intelligence as a positive contribution.

De Alwis added that women have visibility to inspire and encourage other women into the industry. We need more leading women in logistics,” and points out, the modern logistics and transport industry needs people with ‘problem solving and analytical skills, as well as the ability to work independently and to collaborate. These are all innate female skills and as women we should really talk about this and demonstrate our abilities,” de Alwis said.

Karunaratne attributed the WiLAT success to the ‘huge support’ they have got so far from the corporate sector. In a major achievement, WiLAT was able to get the support of top 10 logistics companies in the country – EXPO, JKH, South Asia Gateway Terminal (SAGT), Sri Lanka Ports Authority, Aitken Spence, McLarens, CICT, Hemas, Unilever and Hayleys.

Industry support

“Their CEOs are committed to Women Empowerment Principals (WEP) – and they are continuing to support empowering women since the collaboration. This is a major milestone in our journey and in collaboration with UN Women project, we were able to felicitate these companies and they are committed to work with us in the future.

“We will be selecting the three companies which have really improved working conditions for women and awarding them at our WiLAT 5th anniversary gala dinner on March 23,” she said.

WiLAT Sri Lanka Forum is the Women’s Forum of The Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT) Sri Lanka. WiLAT Sri Lanka was inaugurated on 21 March 2013. It is one of the five pioneering fora in the WiLAT Global community.

Explaining the WiLAT mission, Karunaratne said, “We strive to achieve our four global strategic thrusts, Mentorship, Empowerment, Leadership and Entrepreneurship through our activities.

“We have also launched a number of programs to create awareness and enhance career opportunities for women in the industry, provide networking opportunities to share best practices, provide access to information sources in the sector to guide them on Continuous Professional Development (CPD), train and mentor women in the industry to make a positive contribution, develop and nurture a talent pipeline for the industry and drive change in industry through diversity,” she said.

Although the industry representation of women is at an abysmally low level, the females account to 19% in our CILT membership, 24% females in the CILT council and out of the three Vice Chairpersons, two are females says de Alwis, who is also a Vice Chairperson of CILT. This shows women’s contributions are being recognized by CILT which is very encouraging for WiLATs.

Alibaba’s secret

“If you want your company to be successful; if you want your company to operate with wisdom, with care, then women are the best. Thirty seven percent of senior management in Alibaba are women. Part of the ‘secret sauce’ of our success is because we have so many women colleagues.”

- Jack Ma, Chinese business magnate