Only 3 years separated the births of Fazeela Dharmaratne’s son Nethwin, and her daughter Pravindi. However, in just that time a lot of things changed for their mother. “When I had my kids, I somehow managed to devote a lot of quality time to my son, but when it came to my daughter, I was so busy I felt I ended up neglecting her a little.”
As a young woman, Fazeela joined a bank in Colombo straight out of school, securing a position as a banking assistant. Over the course of 17 years on the job, she climbed up the ladder till she was a Regional Manager, responsible for a cluster of branches.
In 2012, determined to spend more time with her children, she eventually opted for a voluntary separation scheme and went to work on something new – she bought her first preschool and day-care. It was a small home-based operation with only four or five children, but it was a start. It gave her a chance to learn the business from the ground up.
Reliable Childcare Makes a Huge Difference
Today, Fazeela is the director of the CeeBees pre-school and childcare centres and operates corporate crèches for clients like MAS Kreeda, MillenniumIT and WSO2 in Colombo.
The crèches allow employees to access childcare services so that mothers can breastfeed their infants, or stay late to participate in a conference call; when the school holidays are on, the crèche lets the older siblings join in and the staff are willing to accept kids who aren’t regulars during emergencies, such as when a caregiver at home falls ill.
Fazeela offers these uncommon services because she understands intimately what working parents have to deal with. “I have gone through the same thing, holding down a position with a lot of responsibility and having to manage while trying to not feel guilty about my kids,” she says.
In fact, so great are the pressures, that having a child under age five at home makes Sri Lankan women 7.4 percent less likely to join the labour force than women without young children. A 2017 World Bank report Getting to Work: Unlocking Women’s Potential in Sri Lanka’s Labor Force, noted that this association is larger than it was in 2013, when childrearing meant women were 6 percent less likely to participate in the workforce.
Revealingly, the same study found that having young children had no significant effect on men’s prospects in the labour market.
Societal Attitudes Do Not Favor Working Mothers
At just 36.6% percent, Sri Lanka’s female labor force participation rate—a measure of the proportion of females above 15 working or actively looking for work—is discouragingly low.
Among the many challenges experienced by Sri Lankan women, household responsibilities, and especially childcare, remain significant deterrents.
As nuclear families become more common, women are less likely to have extended family living with them who can help raise their children. In addition, societal attitudes often do not favor working mothers.
“It can be a cost-benefit thing for women,” says Dileni Gunewardena, a Professor of Economics at the University of Peradeniya, adding, “sometimes the costs are not monetary – for instance a woman might have to deal with in-laws who disapprove of her working or she might be afraid of leaving her children with strangers.” Dileni thinks one solution is to challenge traditional, deep rooted ideas of what is seen as men’s work and women’s work, and to find ways to share the load.
Families also have to be able to trust crèches and day care centers enough to leave their children for the day. Sri Lanka’s expanding program of early childhood development centers could offer some women short-term relief, and a good accredited system could allay concerns around the quality of childcare offered.
What the Business Community Can Do
At MAS Kreeda Al Safi-Madaba in Jordan, absences due to sick leave have fallen by 9 percent after only 8 months since the on-site crèche was opened, according to IFC’s Tackling Childcare research. MAS co-founder Ajay Amalean says that providing childcare facilities has helped retain experienced employees, reduced absenteeism, and boosted employee satisfaction and loyalty, helping make his company a preferred employer for men and women both.
Amalean understands that having a crèche works for both parents, and even more so for single ones. Aside from the losses associated with absenteeism, high staff turnover is also a costly affair. Companies routinely underestimate the cost of replacing a trained and experienced employee, failing to account for separation, recruitment and selection, training and productivity costs such as the loss of institutional and client-network knowledge.
To address this, companies like Mindtree in India, have chosen to offer a range of childcare solutions. As a result, over 90 percent of Mindtree’s female employees return after maternity leave and over 87 percent of mothers are still with the company a year after their return, even though India has one of the lowest labor force participation rates for mothers in the world, including for highly educated women.
What can Sri Lankan corporates learn from such success stories?
Chiranthi Cooray, Chief Human Resources Officer, Hatton National Bank and Chairperson, Prime Minister’s Task Force for the FLFP Strategy pointed out that going forward it is critical for both the private and public sectors to implement regulations and provide incentives for the provision of high quality crèche and childcare services.
The task force noted that the law should be amended to allow for both maternal and paternal leave after childbirth, while public-private partnerships were essential to make sure that employers did not have to bear the full burden of the costs of offering such benefits. Research shows that where governments publicly provide or subsidize childcare for children under the age of primary education, women are more likely to receive wages. Support for parents—such as tax credits and the availability of childcare for young children—can increase women’s participation in the labour force.
Meanwhile, Ceebees is in its fifth year of operations. Fazeela says when a corporate client first approaches her, she tells them that supporting working parents needn’t be complicated. Companies can set up an infant crèche, for instance, that just takes one room but allows mothers to visit and feed their kids during the working day.
“There’s a lot that can be done. It’s just that decision-makers have to be passionate about supporting diversity,” says Fazeela. “It can’t be just about looking good on your HR awards application, you have to genuinely want to make a difference.”