Good morning distinguished guests, conference organizers. It’s a pleasure to be here, and I want to thank the Colombo School of Business and Management and the Women’s International Foundation for inviting me to speak at this important and I think very timely event.
Shortly after the recent presidential election here in Sri Lanka, I tweeted a congratulatory message to the people of Sri Lanka and said I looked forward to working with the new President. The President replied to me stressing his desire for warm and mutually beneficial relations. Relations with a focus on bilateral economic and trade ties, including increased inward investment. Entrepreneurship, of course, has to be a very important part of that connection. Shared prosperity is essential for both your country and mine, and it is the rising tide that will lift all boats. I know the United States can support and be a part of Sri Lanka’s rising tide.
The United States is a top export market for Sri Lanka, and American companies remain among the largest foreign investors in this country. American business is bringing jobs, skills, new technologies, and the highest ethical and workplace standards to the business environment. Sustainable and equitable economic growth is essential to secure Sri Lanka’s future. Investment, reciprocal trade, and workplace improvements that generate real opportunities are how you get higher growth.
But an accelerated growth rate is dependent on extensive partnerships, consistent regulatory policy, stable politics, and the rule of law. These attributes – partnerships, regulatory consistency, political stability and rule of law – will boost Sri Lanka’s competitiveness.
They’re not the only competitiveness considerations. One consideration that all countries should factor into their economic decision-making is the extent to which women participate in the economy. Women are a proven component of economic growth, and yet in Sri Lanka as in other countries there remain barriers to participation. I understand part of this conference is to address some of those barriers, and I agree, this situation has to change.
It’s got to change as a matter of national economic security. It must change as a matter of social equity. And it must change as a prelude to a more equal and inclusive future. Naming a barrier to the full inclusion of women in the economy will help us remove those barriers, I think. These barriers include societal factors, poor policies, outdated laws, and overt sexual harassment and discrimination. Harassment and discrimination that happens both in the workplace and on the way to work – an issue that taints Colombo’s public transportation schemes – this harassment and discrimination hinders women and constrains economic growth.
I could talk about each of these barriers at great length, but I know my time to speak with you is limited today, so I’m going to take advantage of this podium to talk in more detail about only one of these barriers, a particular barrier that reinforces many of the others.
I don’t want to lecture you only about problems. I also want to talk to you about some solutions. So that’s why I want to share with you some observations on a barrier to women’s participation in the economy that we can confront and try to remove with our individual and institutional leadership.
This barrier is unconscious bias against women in the workplace. I was reading recently on the Mind Tools blog that research suggests we automatically categorize people by what we see. We look at age, hair color, skin color, we look at people’s weight, we look at their gender. We also categorize people by what we can’t see so easily. By education, disability, social status, sexuality, or job title. We assign traits to the people we unconsciously place in these various groups. We make assumptions in the blink of an eye about people we don’t even know based on factors that are probably very irrelevant to their work performance.
Unconscious bias is a form of mental stereotyping that limit women’s possibilities due to preformed ideas about what women can and cannot do. Or about what they want to do.
Unconscious bias is a less tangible barrier to women’s participation in the workforce because it is deeply engrained in our attitudes and beliefs. It comes from our socialization to certain norms when we’re growing up.
The fact is, that it’s unconscious. We don’t even realize it. And this of course means that it’s going to be especially difficult to eradicate because we generally don’t even realize that we’re expressing these biases.
While bad laws and policies are more obvious and can be changed through transparent legislative processes, the perpetrators of unconscious bias are often completely unaware of their behavior and those perpetrators are us.
Unconscious bias itself exists in different forms.
There is something called performance bias. It’s a bias through which we underestimate women’s performance and overestimate that of male counterparts just because they’re men or women.
There’s something called attribution bias, meaning that men ought to get more credit for a given success while women will receive more blame for failure.
One of the best known of these biases is maternal bias, which plays on the false assumption that women are less committed to their careers than men, especially when they have children.
There’s confirmation bias, which causes us to unconsciously select people like ourselves because we believe our own attributes, whether they’re social status or your school group or your ethnic group, we believe our own attributes are the best fit for a job or whatever it is we’re working on.
And men, of course, do not have full ownership of these biases. Women are often perpetrators of unconscious bias as well.
How many women do you know who would never apply for a job in construction or engineering because these are considered to be men’s jobs? Do some of you know women who might feel that way about certain fields?
Women limit themselves to jobs or job fields that are considered feminine. Or they even disregard their own competence because men’s leadership must always be better, so they defer.
Biases like these in the workplace matter, and they matter not just to individual workers or within the confines of a single business. The cumulative impact of these biases is negative. It impacts overall workforce participation and the productivity of women across the globe.
According to the World Bank Report, women in Sri Lanka currently account for 35 percent of the labor force. That number is consistently low compared to some other countries in the region and globally. The global average is over 47 percent participation. In some countries, much higher than that. Japan is 51 percent; the United States is 56 percent; Singapore has 60 percent; Nepal has 82 percent. And this is despite overall economic growth and poverty reduction in Sri Lanka over the past decade.
One way to increase female participation in the work force is to address unconscious bias wherever we find it. Challenge yourself and others to ask whether you are making assumptions about women rather than objectively evaluating their skills or needs in the workplace.
Correcting our assumptions about others is achievable although probably not easy. Correcting our assumptions also must start with ourselves.
Do you cut women off when they speak, but allow men to finish what they’re saying when you’re in a group and having a discussion? Do you assume that men will work late even if they have families, but women will not? Do you credit male colleagues with an idea even if they are repeating an idea voiced earlier by a woman? Do you call women “girls,” but would never think of calling men “boys” in the same workplace? These are all example of unconscious bias and we all do that all the time I suspect.
But eliminating biases can start with us by just questioning some of our own behaviors and mannerisms in the workplace.
The quality of education, social issues such as harassment, lack of childcare, and discrimination in hiring can and do contribute to lower female economic participation in Sri Lanka. These constraints coupled with the unconscious bias that perpetuates many of these barriers produces a lost economic opportunity for women here and women globally. As a result, many women are relegated to the informal sector with lower earnings, higher risk, and lack of labor rights and benefits. Sri Lanka is not the only country where this plays out.
Removing barriers to female economic participation addresses a global problem even though many of the solutions are local. Even though many of the solutions are personal.
According to the World Economic Forum, closing the gender gap could increase global GDP by an average of 35 percent with a full 20 percent of those gains coming from increased productivity due to gender diversity. By way of example, in the United States more than 11 million women-owned businesses employ nearly nine million workers and generate over a trillion dollars in revenue. Imagine comparable figures in Sri Lanka and what that would mean for the economy, what it would mean for Sri Lanka’s competitiveness.
When women work, they invest 90 percent of their income back into their businesses and into the health and education of their families. This is a much greater percentage than what men do. And as women reach their full economic potential to bridge the gender gap locally, that would add an estimated 28 trillion dollars in global GDP by 2025, just five years from now. An estimated 28 trillion GDP extra. That is equivalent to the combined economies of the United States and China — a huge bump of shared prosperity that could be available for everyone.
So what are we doing? What are we waiting for? Progress has certainly been made in recent years by scores of bold and courageous women and men who have been powerful leaders in government, in business, and who have been entrepreneurs. But now is not the time, I think particularly for women, to congratulate each other. We need to ensure that the path is a clear one for our daughters, that the hurdles and the biases, unconscious or otherwise, we continue to face are erased in the next generation.
Men also have a critical role to play as partners in this process. I ask you gentlemen, in your office, your business, or your institution, are women represented on the board or in key seats, in leadership functions? Are they involved in making key decisions? Are women in your organization constrained by biases that fail to encourage their full potential?
The onus is on us, all of us, to shape the future. We, those of us here today, 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 take that to address it. Sometimes just naming the bias, intentionally calling it out, can change its power. This is a call to action that I take very seriously both as an employer of dozens of Sri Lankans at the U.S. Embassy and as a development partner.
The United States supports ongoing skills development and entrepreneurship training programs designed to increase youth employability, particularly for young women in high-growth sectors like Tourism and ICT. For example, earlier this month USAID’s youth skills development and entrepreneurship activity YouLead facilitated two workshops for 70 ICT teachers from 53 public secondary schools in Hambantota and Nuwara Eliya. Participants learned about emerging ICT jobs, how the latest technologies impact career choices, avenues of ICT higher education, and how to talk with young women about the benefits of a career in ICT.
The solution to low female economic participation is not just to give a woman a job. It has to be about creating an environment that empowers, that allows professional growth, and to do that we must eliminate the barriers that hold women back. This is both a matter of national economic security and social equity. It is about global competitiveness and an inclusive future where no one is left behind.
Thank you very much for the opportunity to address the conference, and I wish you well over the course of the next couple of days. Thank you.