Sri Lanka Brief
FeaturesThe Tyranny of the Kitchen Spoon for Sri Lanka’s Women

The Tyranny of the Kitchen Spoon for Sri Lanka’s Women


( Sri Lankan woman washing rice. Credit: Simone D. McCourtie/World Bank)

by Dileni Gunewardena.

A common Sri Lankan proverb states that a woman’s wisdom only extends to the length of the kitchen spoon’s handle. With near universal female lower secondary school completion, and more girls than boys receiving tertiary education, the knowledge of Sri Lankan females has clearly moved beyond the length of the kitchen spoon’s handle. However, the evidence suggests that ties to the kitchen spoon may still be keeping Sri Lankan women out of the workforce.

Sri Lanka’s population has more women than men; there are 106 women for every 100 men. But when it comes to the labour force, there are only 54 women per 100 men, and 52 women employed for every 100 employed men. In the last 10 years, the female labour force participation rate has declined slightly from 39.5 percent to 34.7 percent, and the female unemployment rate has been consistently twice that of males during this period or longer[1] So why aren’t Sri Lankan women – who are on average more educated than Sri Lankan men – engaged in the labor force in similar proportions? This question has been raised and discussed in policy circles, gaining momentum in recent times.

Why should women be in the workforce?

Why not simply recognize the value of the enormous quantity of work that women do in housework that is unpaid and leave them to work where they like? Answers to these highly debated questions fall into two groups – instrumental or efficiency-based vs. intrinsic, or equity based. The instrumentalists point to the education, health and economic benefits that accrue to a woman’s family, community and country when a woman is employed and earning an income – and the costs when they do not. For example, the McKinsey Institute recently estimated that “in a “full potential” scenario in which women play an identical role in labor markets to that of men, as much as $28 trillion, or 26 percent, could be added to global annual GDP by 2025 — the size of the U.S. and Chinese economies today combined. From an equity or intrinsic perspective, though, more important is the kind of freedoms and capability expansion that a woman experiences from reaching her full economic potential.

Why would women not be employed, given these benefits to themselves, their families, the community and the country?

Is it that they are unemployable, lacking the skills (they have the education, after all) to be employed? Is it that they possess the skills (as well as education), but are remunerated less than men with similar skills? If so, the choice of who works, between an equally educated (and skilled) husband and wife is easily made—the one who gets paid more. Or is it that cultural norms about who cares for the children (and in a slowly ageing society, for elders) and which jobs women should hold if they women work outside the home, make it more difficult even for women who are better remunerated than their husbands to work outside the home?

Any attempt to design policy to increase female labour force participation needs to look at three spheres

  1. Women themselves, their education and skills, their other income, the number of children they have and their preferences
  2. Their families and communities where cultural norms prevail that determine the workforce choices women make, and
  3. Markets where gender gaps between equally skilled and educated men and women may persist and where the cost and availability of child and elder care is determined, and the policy sphere, where family-friendly policies and their gender neutrality (e.g. maternity or parental leave?) is determined.

Typically, much of the policy suggestions have only focused on the first sphere. In my paper Why aren’t Sri Lankan women translating educational gains into workforce advantages? I use the World Bank STEP Skills measurement survey 2012 for Sri Lanka and examine if the answer to the question in the title lies in differences in skill acquisition between men and women, differences in the way the market values identical skills depending on whether they are held by men or women, or in the gender division of labor in the household?

I find that although women have higher measured cognitive skills than men and the same level of skill as men in the non-cognitive ones that the market values—such as being agreeable and good at decision-making and risk-taking—the market treats men and women with the same skills differently.

Furthermore, women who are not in paid employment are not the unemployable ones—they have higher levels of cognitive skills that are rewarded by the market than those in paid employment, suggesting a loss to the economy in productive human resources.

But what is keeping such women out of the paid workforce? I find that for women, being married reduces the chances of being in paid employment by 40 percent, and having young children reduces the probability of being in paid employment by a further 18 percent. For men, being married has the opposite effect; it increases the probability of paid employment by 40 percent, while having children has no additional effect. These results are in line with the results of previous studies done by the World Bank and the ILO and suggest inertia in cultural norms regarding gender roles.

The evidence suggests that skill acquisition alone will not eliminate disparities in labour market outcomes. Affirmative action type policies are required to ensure women are treated fairly in the workplace, and gender-neutral family friendly policies like parental leave, or child care subsidies, are indicated in order to reduce the cost to women – and the economy – of the burden of household work. Otherwise, despite women’s wisdom having exceeded the length of the kitchen spoon’s handle, women will still remain under its tyranny.

[1] Department of Census and Statistics, Labor Force Survey Annual Report 2014
Back to Top