Navigating the corporate jungle in a skirt

By Ayesha Ratnayake

I love being a woman. But navigating the corporate world with XX chromosomes is not without its difficulties. No matter your sex, depending on how long you’ve lived, where you’ve worked, and whose life experiences you are privy to, you may be familiar with the plight of the working woman. Having spent over 10 years in business working as everything from intern to CEO to entrepreneur, I have certainly had my share of awkward experiences.

“Be like flowers”

For example, I’ve personally been told by a man working in a Colombo-based company that men’s role is to work and women’s role is to be a comfort to men. “Women should be like flowers,” he said. What? When did we get degraded to foliage? Women should be like whatever they want – Olympic athletes like Susanthika Jayasinghe, adventurers like Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala, or CEOs like Kasturi Chellaraja Wilson. 

Sadly, this impression that women must amount to nothing more than attractive supplicants is shockingly widespread. As a result, women in the workforce are typically paid less (23% less in Sri Lanka) and withheld from leadership roles (or even from employment). Meanwhile, gender stereotypes and power plays abound.

Of course, gender bias is certainly not limited to Sri Lankan workplaces. All over the world, society is quick to judge women who do not express passivity. A study showed that simply switching the name on a resumé between Howard and Heidi changed the impression readers had of the person described. Howard was seen as likeable and a good colleague. Heidi was considered aggressive, selfish and unlikely to be a team player. Yes, with the exact same profile! Across the world, women are more likely to be characterised as ‘aggressive’ when they firmly deliver a point of view while the same point and expression coming from a man is deemed as ‘leadership’. In the words of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer: “Next time you are about to call a little girl ‘bossy’, say instead: ‘She has executive leadership skills.”

Corp Culture

Earnings and body parts

In Sri Lankan society, there is a widespread expectation that men should earn more. In fact, even women have told me they expect as much from their partners. This reminds me of a cartoon I saw of two toddlers – a boy and a girl – looking into their nappies and declaring “Oh, so that explains the difference in our salaries!” If you ask me, it perfectly illustrates the absurdity of suggesting biological appendages should have any bearing on our earnings!

Yet, the statistics don’t lie – men are paid more than women for the same work at the same level of work experience, even though women are typically more educated. Despite this, I have always insisted on paying my share of the bills. Yet, when it’s my turn to pay at restaurants, and I gladly hand over my debit card, leave the tip and sign the receipt (which I must retrieve from my male partner because it is always handed to him), every staff member at the restaurant – the cashier, waiter and even the doorman – all inevitably look at my partner and say “Thank you, sir”. Ahem. I just forfeited a day’s wages for that meal, but okay.

No wonder some men are often visibly embarrassed when a lady pays or shares the bill. While they often understand the logic and are happy to save a bit of cash, they prefer to dodge the judgmental gaze of the waitstaff by orchestrating a discreet drug-deal-esque transaction. For example, he will insist on paying at the venue but allow her to privately reimburse him afterwards. Or wait for the waiter to leave before sliding the bill over. Why the idea that a woman is equally able and willing to pay for things is so shocking and shame-inducing is beyond me. God forbid the restaurant staff witness anything remotely progressive!

Sharing (household tasks) is caring

Speaking of food, I once had lunch with a group of colleagues including a pair of newlyweds. Someone quickly pounced on the new bride: “So, have you started cooking?” The men at the table chastised her saying it was about time she started. Meanwhile, the women gave her tips on making the cooking process easier. Curious, I asked why the role of cooking was falling solely to the wife who puts in the same number of hours at work as her husband. Didn’t the husband also wake up early to scrape the coconuts and prepare the meals? Dead silence. I can only hope it was the sound of revelation. Working men, it’s time to start doing your part. And working women, it’s time to hand your hubbies a broom and a saucepan. The baby too, if you have one.

Speaking of babies, can we take a moment to recognise that they do not come with tattoos on their tushes stating “Mom’s responsibility”? Given that mom just carried the baby inside her for 9 months, I’d say dad has a lot of catching up to do! Instead, women are often expected to be the ones to drop everything when the baby is born or the child is sick, the daycare is closed or a parent needs to be home early.

Meanwhile, there seems to be an unspoken rule about who gets to stay out late. Or, more importantly, who doesn’t. One of the women on my team griped to me about how her husband was pouting and sulking after an office party that had run into the wee hours of the morning and kept her out late. “Wait,” I said, “Isn’t this the same husband who is out late drinking with his friends on Friday nights?” Yup, the very same one. And yet, the double standards abound.

If you’re a woman, you may even notice that being married or a mother is a cause of concern in the interview room. Prospective employers baulk at the idea that you might up and make a baby while you were supposed to be working. And God forbid you need to care for any you do have. Needless to say, this is not a problem for men, since it’s assumed their wives will be taking care of any current or future offspring. In fact, research published on CNBC showed that mothers statistically earn 30% less than non-mothers, while fathers earn 20% more than non-fathers – shocking! Women who succeed at work are asked “Is it possible for a woman to have it all?” As a society, let’s raise a collective eyebrow at this question and why it’s aimed only at one gender. The last time we checked, the tiny humans were co-owned by both parents, yes?

Putting women on a pedestal and lauding them as superwomen for ‘doing it all’ is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for husbands and fathers. Instead, for the benefit of women’s mental, physical and emotional health, we need to fix the imbalance.

Corp Culture

More than bodies

In a country where the Internet is the top source of information about sex, according to Doctors of the World in Sri Lanka, it’s no wonder that women’s bodies are unnecessarily sexualized. The workplace is, of course, no exception. While trying to flag down a three-wheeler to head to a meeting, a co-worker suggested I “use my legs” to speed up the process. Nope! These legs were made for walking, not for luring easily excitable three-wheeler drivers. Ew.

Needless to say, there are plenty of horrible ways in which women face unsavoury sexual attention at work. A study by the College of Community Physicians revealed that 6% of Sri Lanka’s female private-sector workers had experienced serious forms of sexual harassment at work. Meanwhile, a 2019 survey by Transparency International Sri Lanka showed that 60% of women have encountered an experience where public officials implied, openly or suggestively, that they would grant a benefit in return for a sexual favour. These are not one-off occurrences – 46% of respondents said it happened occasionally, often or frequently.

You might also have heard the most unsavoury reasoning being provided for hiring a female candidate of a particular body type to cater to a primarily male clientele. Heads up, if your product is so bad that your company needs sexual ammunition to close a deal, you should have a serious talk with your development team. All the reasoning you need to hire a woman is between her ears. And to be clear, I mean her brain – not her eyes, lips or nose.

And yet, women are often regarded as eye candy first, employees second. This becomes especially visible when women in the workplace are shamed for putting on a bit of weight, revealing greying hair, or dressing comfortably. A swarm of men will come crawling out of the woodwork to express their disappointment that the view they had been enjoying has been diminished. Somehow, the idea that women don’t exist to improve men’s visual landscape is unthinkable to them. As you can imagine, taking eye candy from a man-baby results in a lot of unnecessary bawling.

Mind you, this one is also a double-edged sword. Because the same men will just as readily pass crude remarks about women who do meet their visual preferences. They may also assume that an attractively dressed woman is so attired to impress them. Of course, this is never the case. For a woman, the weather, laundry days, waxing schedules, menstrual cycles, current fashions, and the chance to admire one’s reflection in glass windows all take priority. The male gaze is nowhere on that list!

Sinister stereotyping

Sometimes gender stereotypes show up at work in the strangest ways. Have you noticed that in the event the usual all-important maker-of-the-tea-and-coffee is absent, several thirsty males will begin to suggest that a female member of the company do the honours? There seems to be an assumption that all activities that involve getting within 5 feet of a kitchen automatically fall on womankind. Really now, if you don’t know how to make a decent cup of tea, there’s always YouTube. Or UberEats. Or water. How about we let the female members of the company do what they are actually being paid to do?

Then there are the classic secretarial duties. You’ve seen this yourself. A room full of evolved humans, all perfectly capable of placing pen to paper to form words, yet inevitably, a woman is asked to take notes. Her relative seniority has little bearing, because of course, this is a great compliment to her handwriting. Heads up business men and women of the world, attractive handwriting is not a God-given gift to females. I have personally encountered many women with handwriting akin to doctors’ prescription scrawl. And yes, that includes my own. (It’s a good thing I’m typing this.) Meanwhile, there are several men whose writing deserves to be framed beside the Mona Lisa. So the next time you’re in a meeting, consider suggesting that a man perform the secretarial role. Yes, shock everyone.

This and other seemingly small actions are symptomatic of a long history of undermining women’s intellect – demoting them to minor roles while men do the ‘real work’. In fact, there is an ancient Sri Lankan stereotype that a woman’s intellect goes only as far as the handle of a spoon!

This gendered view of intellect is illustrated with the common workplace occurrence of “mansplaining”. This occurs when a man explains something to a woman which she already knows, making the assumption that by virtue of his maleness, he must also have superior knowledge on all subjects. Sometimes, this assumption reaches absurd levels. I once attended a ‘Women at Work’ empowerment event in New York City for women of colour and a Caucasian man stood up during the question-and-answer session. Nope, not to ask a question from the esteemed female panelists. Instead, he delivered a 10-minute diatribe of his own ill-informed views about how women of colour ought to empower themselves. The irony was completely lost on him.

There’s also the pattern of women being constantly interrupted. I confess it took me a while to notice this. Alas, it’s like unwanted body hair – once you become aware of it, you start spotting it everywhere. You’ll notice that a woman will be putting forward an idea when a man will use his louder voice to speak over her. Sometimes, he may disguise his behaviour with a “Sorry to interrupt” or an “Excuse me”. Don’t be fooled. This is simply the equivalent of Kanye West’s “I’mma let you finish” while stealing Taylor Swift’s microphone – an artificial nicety before inappropriate steamrolling. Consider counting the number of times women are interrupted at meetings. And if you come across a Kanye in your office, don’t hesitate to ask him to wait his turn. A little “So-and-so was still speaking” goes a long way.

Glass ceilings, walls and windows

Working environments often resemble ‘boys clubs’ – especially in Sri Lanka where only 34% of women are represented in the labour force. This problem worsens for women in male-dominated industries where the ‘bro culture’ is stronger than ever. Male bosses may have machang-style relationships with their male employees, meeting for beers and discussing sports, technology and women. Male friends have disclosed to me the Trump-style ‘locker room talk’ that sometimes takes place. Such a culture can lead men who are buddies with their boss to be selected for promotions and increments over equally competent women.

The other day, I came across a meme depicting a woman standing on a bus where all the seats were taken by men. The caption was “Well, you asked for gender equality”. I promptly commented “You can keep your bus seats. It’s the ones in boardrooms and parliaments we want.” The fact is, women ought to have equal space in all places where decisions are made. Women leaders like Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, and Angela Merkel, ex-Chancellor of Germany, demonstrate the value to the world of those who lead with smarts, integrity and kindness. So let’s build more women leaders.

As a reader, you might be thinking “I’ve never experienced a gender-related issue so it can’t be a big deal” or “So-and-so seems to have broken the glass ceiling, so clearly, it can be done.” If you’ve had the privilege of not being stifled by gender-based barriers, don’t imagine your experience is ubiquitous. World hunger doesn’t end when you have dinner. And global warming doesn’t stop when I feel cold. We need a world where everyone has the chance to succeed unencumbered by gender stereotypes. The experiences I’ve shared today are just the tip of the iceberg, and each one is made worse by the influence of class, ethnicity, culture, religion, and geography.

In March 2021, TIME magazine reported that the global gender gap will take over 130 years to close, COVID-19 having pushed it a further 36 years out. Whether woman or man, I invite you to be a champion for the women in your workplace. Question gender stereotypes, insist on equal wages, distribute chores fairly, and call out inappropriate sexualisation. We may not be able to smash the glass ceiling in our lifetime, but let’s at least make some cracks.


Ayesha Ratnayake (MBA, Chartered Marketer) has 10+ years of experience in marketing and management. She has served as CEO, Director and Shareholder of a technology firm where she led the development of an enterprise software product, and Co-founder and Director of a marketing communications agency. Ayesha is an author, startup mentor and a mental health advocate.

Start typing and press Enter to search