The Role of Women in Sri Lanka’s Shipping and Logistics sector – An Interview

Striving for greater gender equality has been a core development objective across countries, as a matter of smarter economics, productively enhancement, and achieving better socio-economic outcomes. The maritime and shipping industry in particular has identified the need to advance women’s role in the sector, and for good reason. The International Transport Workers’ Federation estimates that only 2% of the world’s maritime workforce is made up of women. With Sri Lanka’s goal of becoming an international maritime and shipping hub, how does the country’s maritime and shipping industry perform in terms of female representation? What are the opportunities and challenges for women in the industry? What can corporates do to increase female representation? To discuss all this and more, we met with two eminent personalities in the maritime and shipping industry, who are both members of the National Agenda Committee on Logistics and Transport. This podcast features Gayani de Alwis, Co- Founder and Chair Person, Women in Logistics and Transport Sri Lanka and Kasturi Chellaraja Wilson, Managing Director of the Hemas Logistics and Maritime Cluster, and from the CCC, Shenali de Silva, Research Associate and Manager of the NACs.

At the outset of the discussion, both Gayani and Kasturi observe that, while participation in the industry is low, the industry’s drive to evolve and become a competitive logistics hub is paving the way for greater female participation. The lack of representation however, is largely due to preconceived notions of the industry and the perception that the roles the industry has to offer aren’t a “woman’s job”. Changing these notions, and paving the way to becoming an international shipping and logistics hub, requires educating women about the opportunities available in the industry which are discussed extensively.

The transition of Sri Lanka from a traditional haulage logistics country to a third-part logistics provider requires a workforce with a unique skillset. These skills would largely be required for process re-engineering, understanding the impact to customers and extensive analysis of data. This in turn is creating a need for a new breed of employees with analytical skills, collaborative skills, negotiation skills and an empathetic work ethic, all of which are inherently possessed by women. Women are thereby increasingly becoming an integral part to the industry and have a key role to play in the transformation of the industry.

While some companies have been quick to identify the importance of equal opportunity in the workforce, Kasturi questions if these companies encourage a culture which allows women to perform? A larger challenge, which is at the core of helping women thrive in the industry, would be changing the industry’s perception on the importance of female participation and contribution. Therefore, creating a conducive culture and environment is of paramount importance. Greater female participation however, is only half of the battle. Retaining top female talent requires having the right policies in place. Facilities such as a crèche, flexible working hours, and split jobs are likely to attract greater female participation and encourage a long term commitment to their roles.

Women themselves need to be a driving force in equal opportunity and equal pay. Both Gayani and Kasturi concede that women sell themselves short and bargain less at entry point, which has a significant long term impact to their careers. A fundamental change in the mindset of women is likely to have a ripple effect and challenge tradition notions of women and their contribution to the shipping and logistics industry.

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