Annual General meeting of The Women's Chamber of Industry and Commerce

Ambassador Gonggrijp had the honor to attend the Annual General meeting of The Women's Chamber of Industry and Commerce as their Chief Guest. In her address she had the following to say about sharing experiences, knowledge exchange and empowering women.

Dear ladies, it is a pleasure to be here.

At first, I would like to thank you for the honor of being your Chief Guest at this 34th Annual General Meeting. As the new ambassador for the Netherlands, I am pleased to have the opportunity to meet a lot of people that are doing such great and admirable work in and for Sri Lanka. The work you’ve been doing as a Chamber ever since 1985 is so important for women and the society in general.  

To explain why I have much appreciation for the kind of work you are doing, I would like to share something personal with you. I am a full-time working mother, who is lucky enough to have a wonderful job, which allows me to contribute to make a difference, or at least to try to make a difference for people and the world we live in. But I cannot do that on my own. In achieving my professional goals and my personal goals I need the support of people around me. Support from my parents and my husband. But also institutional support. High quality, unbiased education to start with, but also access to finance and good child care facilities.

When my firstborn was three months old, I brought him to day care, which allowed me to continue my full-time job. I could work during the day, while my son was under professional supervision, and when he grew older also having fun with the other kids. Without support and these institutional arrangements, I would have been lost. But there is more. I understand 37% of the female workforce in Sri Lanka is working. In the Netherlands this is 63%. We are not in the top league either. Even though Sri Lanka has some great examples of women in leading, powerful positions, also in the area of entrepreneurship, I understand that less than 10% of the higher management positions in the private sector are fulfilled by women. And let’s not even start talking about female representation in politics. As long as women are professionally in the minority we need to go an extra mile in supporting each other. Women - amongst each other - have a sense of recognition. They understand each other’s roles and challenges. They know each other’s strengths and weak spots. They often speak the same language. Women tend to be modest about their achievements. They sometimes doubt whether they are the right person for the job. This is why women need to organize themselves, need role models. They need to exchange experiences and empower one another. To stimulate the ‘can do’ mentality and to overcome the extra challenges working women have.  Your chamber creates the space to support each other professionally, and personally.

This is not just important because women need to earn a living and work on their professional development. This is not just important because we have all committed ourselves to the Sustainable Development Goals, which include creating equal chances for all genders and providing decent work opportunities for everyone. It is important because it is also becoming very clear that - given the way women fulfil their role – they have an essential added value to the sustainable economic development of a country. Today we have many examples on different levels. The Better Work programme of the International Labour Organization saw productivity going up in the female dominated garment sector when women where hired as team leaders. More recently, in May this year, the same International Labour Organization published an article about women in leadership. Research has shown that women in leadership bring better business performance. A more diverse management improves business outcomes and makes it easier to attract talent. These conclusions were a result of surveys that were spread among 13.000 enterprises in 70 different countries. More than 54 percent of those companies agreed on the fact that more gender inclusivity resulted in improvements regarding creativity, innovation and openness within the company. These findings are confirmed by an earlier study of McKinsey, concluding that companies with women on the executive boards lead to higher returns on investment, lower debt to equity ratios and higher average net income growth. 

Need I say more? Yes, I will!

Actually, I will add an extra burden on your shoulders. I already mentioned the Sustainable Developments Goals. The worldwide goals for sustainable development. Together we need to tackle issues of poverty, inequality, climate change, clean water, biodiversity and education if we want to reach sustainable development. Sri Lanka is second most vulnerable to climate change in the world. You have a direct stake. And I ask you to play your role and take your responsibility in this endeavor. As professionals you can help reaching these goals by being aware how your company or organization can mitigate the negative environmental effects, or even make a positive contribution, and how your company or organization takes care of its employees and contributes to their wellbeing.  

On the short term this takes extra time, energy and often money, but in the long run this will pay off. A happy workforce is more productive, creative and dedicated. Saving energy and water, will cut costs. Moreover, and this is where the real long term vision comes in, you will be a reliable partner to  Western companies and brands. They are pressured by government and civil society to make their value chain more sustainable and to know who they source from and under which circumstances. If you show you are producing, manufacturing and doing business up to the SDG standards, then you can become the preferred sustainable choice for Dutch and other Western trading partners and investors.         

So I am asking you to be a role model for your colleagues, for other women around you and for Sri Lankan society in general and last but not least for the world to see that Sri Lanka is the professional, diverse, sustainable choice. In fact I ask you to be superwomen. No pressure….

Because I know that when you look at it from different angels you are already performing these roles. At least some of them, and let’s for once not be too ambitious as women and continue in the right direction. Last Thursday, I spoke with  Ms. Ranasinghe and Ms. Fernando. During our talk I heard quite some wonderful stories about your members and their history as working women. I can’t wait to hear more of your stories tonight. Let us as women share experiences, exchange knowledge and empower each other.