‘Gender equality vital for economic growth’ | Sunday Observer

‘Gender equality vital for economic growth’

Women should be provided with equal opportunities to enable them to contribute to the socio-economic development of the country. Statistics show that women obtain higher educational qualifications than men. Their participation in the economic sphere should be encouraged to reap the benefits of the knowledge and skills they possess, Assistant General Manager, Card Services, Cargills Bank Ltd., Mahesha Amarasuriya said.

Emphasising the fact that women are multi-talented, Amarasuriya said that ensuring gender equality is important for balanced economic growth.

“Women should be provided with a conducive environment to continue in their careers. They need supportive infrastructure, framework and services to facilitate sustainable contribution in the long term. As more women join the labour force, they seek opportunities to better their living standards. It is important to create a space for them,” she said in an interview with Business Observer.

She said that it is vital to recognise women’s contribution to the economy and encourage them to efficiently participate in the economic growth trajectory.

Mahesha was previously the head of Private Banking and was instrumental in setting up Private Banking and Priority Banking at Cargills Bank. She commenced her banking career at NDB Bank and has wide expertise in banking and management with a focus on corporate, retail and private banking.

Excerpts:

Q. What is your opinion on women’s participation in the labour market? What are the areas of concern?

A. Women’s contribution in labour market participation is low compared to the education they receive. According to recent World Bank statistics, female labour force participation is 47 percent (those employed or seeking employment as a percentage of the total working age female population).

When compared to neighbouring countries such as India, where it is 34 percent and we are better than them, but the UK and the USA have a female labour force participation rate of over 80%. In the case of Micro and SME sectors in Sri Lanka, 24.8 percent are headed by women.

I see progress in the overall participation of women. However, a lot needs to be done. We need to increase women’s participation at Board level which is at only eight percent in the case of listed companies. Though this is better than countries such as Japan and Korea (that are at 3.5 and 4 percent) it could further improve. The 2019 Budget introduced a requirement for companies to voluntarily increase female participation at Board level to one- third which is a good move.

The areas of concern include proper childcare facilities and availability of healthy and hygienic food at affordable prices. Since it is increasingly becoming difficult to get domestic help and extended family members support, these facilities become essential to encourage female participation in the labour force and enable the working mothers to engage in their work duties with increased concentration and commitment.

All round the economy, gender balance and equality should prevail. It is even more important at the top most decision making levels such as Parliament. In Parliament, there are 13 female members accounting for 5.7 percent of the total number.

As per the World Economic Forum statistics, in less developed countries, such as Rwanda, Cuba and Bolivia the female representation in Parliament is over 50%. Sri Lanka having had the first female Prime Minister of the world, a female President and also having had female representation in Parliament (then State Council of Ceylon) in 1930 (Adeline Molamure) should work to have more females in Parliament.

Certain industries are stereotyped as male dominant such as IT and construction. Therefore, it is important to get female participation across the board in all industries. Over 50 percent of students entering universities are females. However, this is not reflected in the labour market as those who are qualified do not enter the job market or do not remain in the labour force.

Q. What more should be done to enhance the financial independence of women? What is your opinion on women empowerment and financial inclusion?

A. Sri Lanka has made considerable progress in financial inclusion as there is a high level of physical access to financial institutions. Sri Lanka’s banks and non-bank financial institutions have wide networks, reaching the far corners of the country. As a result, bank branch density stands at 18.6 branches for every 100,000 adults.

About 83 percent of the adult population in the country have accounts with formal financial institutions and the same percentage of women also have accounts at formal financial institutions, unlike in other South Asian countries.

However, when it comes to borrowing, only 17% of the women have been successful in borrowing in the formal sector, but over 80% in the informal microfinance sector were women.

Financial independence is important for women at all levels and therefore, women should be educated on investments and savings even in a small way.

The 2019 Budget has taken measures to introduce legislation to enable flexible working hours and work from home concept for women, tax concessions for companies that grant three months maternity leave and financial assistance to set up daycare centres. These will help increase financial independence and empowerment as women will get more opportunities to engage in meaningful employment.

Q. What are the key challenges in the banking sector, especially with regard to women?

A. As a woman, after marriage you will be responsible for the entire household and the family. It is important that women perform the key roles expected of them, as a mother and a wife while managing her responsibilities at the workplace.

The banking industry is a competitive and demanding industry that needs a high level of commitment within the workplace. At times it is difficult to work from home and implement flexi working hours in a bank because banks are centered around customers and customers yet need the physical presence of bank staff.

While this could be a key challenge, I am proud to note that almost one third of the Cargills Bank corporate management is female. The bank encourages females to enter in the banking sector and welcomes more women’s participation in the system.

Q. What are the immediate workforce issues that women face and what remedial action could the authorities take to ensure a women-friendly workplace?

A. Female participation in the labour force is essential to ensure the economic growth of the country.

However, women face many issues and challenges in their work environment. Balancing work place commitment along with home front responsibilities is the key issue. Women also face sexual harassment/abuse, gender stereotyping, and safety and hygienic issues while carrying out their work.

Facilities such as childcare and flexible working environments are necessary for women to positively contribute towards development.

Access to legal advice/counselling in the event of harassment / abuse is essential. Safe and comfortable transport systems with basic hygiene in the work environment will also enable increased female participation.

These improvements to the support system will have far reaching benefits and will complement the efforts of attracting more women into the labour force.

Q. What changes should be made to the education system to produce more employable youth?

A. Overall the education system needs to focus on the changes in the economic landscape and the job market and also should address the stereotype gender divides.

Subjects such as entrepreneurship should be introduced to the curriculum in a big way to create more entrepreneurs.

Women are capable of managing a small business while taking on family responsibility.

Entrepreneurship is a key area to attract women to the labour force. As the world is moving towards a digital economy and digitalisation where artificial intelligence plays a key role, the country needs to embrace these changes by incorporating Digital Architecture into the curriculum.

Women need to play a significant role in this transformation process especially in the Information Technology industry which is predominantly stereotyped as a male dominated industry.

Q. What is the way forward for the country? What action is necessary to correct the gaps in the system?

A. The economy needs more women’s participation. We are making progress in the right direction. It is important to identify women’s contribution to the economy. The government needs to provide a support system for women to actively participate in economic activities as their contribution has become a key component in the economic value chain.

Q. What progressive steps has your Bank taken to improve women’s status?

A. Cargills Bank is a strong believer of the power of the woman. A woman’s silent contribution to the economy cannot be ascertained at most times.

Her strengths are her courage, perseverance and commitment. In most cases, women carry the entire burden of the family alone. To appreciate the value of such women and to give them unstinting support throughout their journey, Cargills Bank has a program focusing on women entrepreneurs, especially in rural areas.

This initiative goes beyond merely providing financial facilities. Of course providing financial support at concessionary rates is part of the offer. The bank also provides advisory services on management, entrepreneurship, technical knowledge and accounting and financial planning. The Bank is ready to support women to start their own businesses even with zero investment by taking their commitment, perseverance and courage as the biggest security.

Q. What is the Bank’s contribution to the economy as a whole and what initiatives have you taken to popularise plastic money in the country?

A. The country is moving towards cashless transactions. The bank has been successful in customer acquisition since the inception of its card business in August 2018.

The synergetic offering with Cargills Food City supermarket chain was one of the key contributors as the Bank offered an unmatched supermarket deal.

The bank has had a consecutive 15% cashback offer with Cargills Food City for 11 months since August 2018 and it ends in June this year. This offer enables customers to purchase goods worth Rs. 50,000 every month and save up to Rs. 7,500 monthly.As a brand committed to improving the lifestyles of rural people, we aspire to offer equal benefits to a wide spectrum of customers. This is why offer a credit card from a minimum credit limit of Rs. 10,000. This has broken the boundaries in the market by enabling a wider untapped population who wish to experience their first credit card and enjoy the benefits.

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