Women’s Participation in the Labor Force: Sri Lanka

As the world economy continues to grow, analysts have identified some common trends of individuals in the labor force. Economic growth goes hand-in-hand with increased overall employment rates. However, a great majority of empirical studies have indicated that in the first stages of economic growth in countries, the participation of women in labor force tends to decrease up to a certain level before it starts increasing gradually. This has been referred to as the U-Shaped pattern. However, it is also noted that some of the countries do not follow this pattern, which is mainly caused due to a number of factors, but the most significant ones are related to gender disparities in these countries. It is also notable that despite the demographic statistics of a country, the social and cultural norms impact more on the ability of men and women to be members of labor force. In Sri Lanka, the population of women is estimated to be about 57% of the nation’s total population of approximately 21 million people. However, only about 33% of the labor force is made up of women, which indicates that almost 70% of women of working age are economically inactive. There could be a number of reasons that lead to such a scenario, and among them is the narrow range of skills that women have, inequitable division of labor in the market, and multiple roles of women in the society. It is for this reason that the current paper seeks to delve more and understand the participation of women in the labor force in Sri Lanka.

In the recent years, Sri Lanka has experienced a massive growth in its economy, which has also been accompanied by high labor force participation, and reduced unemployment rates. Between 2003 and 2012, the country’s economy grew at an average rate of 6.5%. Today, the country has a high number of working age population, which reduces the dependency ratio, and it started in 1991, with its end being projected to be around 2017. In addition, experts expect that the labor force will start shrinking after 2026, and by then, the aging population in the country will be high, and there will be a massive pressure on the working population. Statistics show that the Sri Lankan labor force has about 53.4% of its working population being above the age of 15, and among whom approximately 95% were employed in 2011. On the one hand, the rates for men in the working population are 74.2% being above 15 years of age, and 97.3% were in the labor force in 2011. On the other hand, women who have attained the working age are not as involved in the labor force as men. Among the women who had attained the working age, only 35% were in the labor market, and only 93.2% of them were employed in 2011. In addition, about 33.6% of the women within the Sri Lanka participated in the labor force in 2002, and this number reduced to 32.8% in 2011 for the same age group. However, with the expected shrinkage in working population in the near future, the country should focus on increasing the participation of its population in the labor force, especially the women, if they intend to attain sustainable growth.


The relatively low participation of women in the labor force in Sri Lanka is considerably puzzling, as the nation has low fertility rates, and women acquire high levels of schooling. However, the country has had a traditionally low level of participation of women in the economic activities. Therefore, it is evident that it might be difficult for women to participate in the labor force, but it is not impossible. As earlier highlighted, with the increase of economic development, the participation of women in the labor force initially declines with the increase in the per capita income, but eventually starts to increase as economic development gets to higher levels. However, studies have also indicated that the use of public policies and the proper implementation of the same can have a significant role in the rapid increase of women in the working population.

Sri Lanka is a forerunner in numerous human developmental fronts, especially in respect to gender equality. However, even with the increased economic growth, population of women in the labor force has stagnated between 30 and 35% in the recent decades. The rate is significantly lower than what would be expected, considering the educational attainment of the country’s female population. However, considering that the country is in a transition stage of economic development with considerable reduction in the agricultural sector and increase in the service sector, it is expected that the country will follow the U-shaped growth path in female labor participation. In order for the country to speed up this process, they need to understand the history of female participation in the labor force, as well as, the challenges that are keeping them away from participating.

Historically, Sri Lanka is a nation that has had cultural activities that hamper the ability of women to participate in economic activities. Another factor that has played an important role in the inability of women to participate efficiently in the labor market is religion. The rates of female employment have been historically disaggregated by the religious beliefs, including Islam and Christianity. The lowest reports of unemployment are witnessed among the Muslims, followed by the Christians. These factors continue to have an impact on women and their ability to participate in the labor force.

Women who are participating in the labor market in Sri Lanka are experiencing slow but significant changes in their choices of occupation, as well as status. This is mainly attributable to the emergence of new technologies and globalization, which have brought about significant changes in the Sri Lankan job market. About half of the employed women in Sri Lanka are wage workers, approximately 40% of them are self-employed or employers of wage workers, while about 10% work in family businesses or farms as volunteers. Figure 1 shows the statistics as at 2012, and compares the participation of both men and women.


Figure 1: Type of Employment in Sri Lanka between men and women. Source Chowdhury

As of 2009, the informal sector was the main source of employment for Sri Lankan women, as it employed 63% of them. Earnings in the informal sector are about 40% lower than those in the formal sector. As such, there is a higher desirability among women to work in the formal sector. In the country, the service sector is the fastest growing economic front, and it is also a fast growing source of employment for both men and women both in the urban and rural areas. In the urban areas, more than two-thirds of workers are in the service industry. As of 2009, about 39% of women in employment were in the service sector, which is also the industry that is experiencing the highest expansion in the employment of women. In 1992, only 31% of the employed women were working in this sector. The increase in the employment in the sector could also be attributed to the reduction in the agricultural sector, which is shrinking at a rate of about 0.3% per annum. On the one hand, it is evident in the rural areas, where the agricultural sector is not the main job provider, and in the urban locations, only 2% of the employees are in this sector. In 1992, statistics indicate that about 45% of the working women were in the agricultural sector. By 2009, this percentage had reduced by 8%. On the other hand, there is the industrial sector, where the number of workers rises by approximately 2.2% annually, and it accounts for about a quarter of employment opportunities for Sri Lankans.

One of the evidently visible issues in the employment of Sri Lankans is gender differences across sectors, and they are even more evident in the occupations and industries. Most of the employed women work mainly as skilled agriculturalists or in the fishery department, which account for about 25%, while about 23% work in elementary occupations, such as subsistence workers day laborers or street vendors, among others. Similar statistics are seen among men and, as such, there are limited differences in these sectors. However, in some occupations, there are massive gender segregations. One of these categories is the ‘professional sector’, which is mainly dominated by women where about 11.1% of working women are professionals, and only 3.7% of the working men are in the same category. On the other hand, men dominate the categories of ‘plant and machine operators’ and ‘assembler’. One-tenth of the male employees work as machine assemblers or operators; and only one-twentieth of the female workers are machine assemblers or operators. A higher proportion of working men are managers or entrepreneurs, or senior officials, whereas the women take up more clerical positions.


There are numerous constraints that women face in their attempts to be active participants of financial market. These hindrances emanate from all the different spheres, including private, public, family, personal, community, and state levels. In numerous situations, these barriers are interdependent, and in order to promote an increase on the participation of women in the labor market, it is vital to shed some light on the barriers. On the supply side, the challenges that are faced by the women relate to time, capital, mobility, skill, and information constraints. In relation to the demand side, the main issue creating hindrances for women is discrimination. The norms and cultural issues in reference to women’s status in Sri Lanka, and their role in the society have an impact on both the demand and supply sides of hindrances.

Globally, in both developed and developing nations, women’s involvement and choice making in economic opportunities are driven and shaped by the existence of deep-rooted norms of women being the primary care-givers, and household workers. Women spend a significant part of their lives bearing and bringing up children. However, in Sri Lanka, a significant amount of time previously spent rearing children has been released due to the decline in productivity experienced in Sri Lanka in the recent years. Studies have shown that on average, 70% of the women with a child under the age of 5 years are not in the labor market, and they spend their time doing housework. The rate is about 75% for urban women and 71% for rural women. In addition, among the married women in without a child under the age of 5, the rate is 67% and 57% in urban and rural areas, respectively. They are involved in fulltime housework and looking after their families. In addition, due to the primary caregiving role that women have, the Sri Lankan aging population may add more responsibilities to women. As such, this emerges as a major constraint for women to participate actively in the labor force.

The women in Sri Lanka lack appropriate skills, and this is thought to be one of the main determinants for women’s unemployment, and the fact that they choose to remain away from the market activities. In an earlier section, there is a description showing the gendered participation in the labor market in different sectors.

The women do not have an adequate access to the opportunities and information in relation to the availability of jobs and this is mainly attributable to their concentration in the private sphere and reduced presence in public life. Since their birth, men and women in the Sri Lankan environment develop in diverse ways, which means that the society has different expectations from them and they do not have an equal access to resources. As a result, women have little access to productive resources, including information and opportunities.

The low economic participation of women and the fact that they earn significantly less than men cannot be wholly explained by the existing gap in skills, experience, education, and the work sector. The women are half as likely to be contacted regarding a job opportunity, as compared to men. This can act as the demotivating factor that may negatively impact on the willingness of women to participate in the labor force. In addition to eliminating developmental advantages for the country, it also sidelines the ability of women to be productive. The correction of biases in the public regulations and legal system can alleviate some of the discriminatory factors that reinforce the existing biases.


There could be policy implementation that could release a substantial amount of time and encourage them to be more active in the labor force. There could be a public subsidy or provision for women as a compensation for costs incurred as at home, as they participate in economic activities. Inadequate skills can be fixed through the use of targeted training program. If women receive adequate training in different sectors that they have low participation, there could be increased participation in the identified sectors. The different subgroups of women may receive varied types of training, and it would be especially useful for women transitioning to work-life from education in the rural areas. This may differ from that of the self-employed women who may have the intention of expanding their productivity.

Lack of information can be resolved through the provision of resources, for example, micro-finance schemes and business development services that would provide women with the ability to develop their businesses. Business training would enable women to establish their businesses and start participating in economic development. On the supply bias, it can be resolved through the implementation of laws that will support the involvement of women.


Despite the economic growth in Sri Lanka, there has been reduced participation of women in the labor force. There are numerous reasons why women have not been actively participating in the labor force, as compared to men. Historically, the gender division of labor in the society led to the allocation of household work and caregiving to women. Consequently, they are unable to participate effectively in the labor force. This has been the scenario in Sri Lanka, and women have not fully participated in the workforce, but this is expected to change in the nearest future. Analysis indicates that the country is following the U-shape pattern, where the participation of women in the labor force reduces as the per capita income increases, but after a given level, it begins increasing again. The identified hindrances include time constraints, supply-side biases, inadequate skills and lack of an access to opportunities and information.

Feb 9, 2020 in Economics
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