The International Labour Organisation (ILO) office in Sri Lanka and the Employers Federation of Ceylon (EFC) are drafting a manual to help companies reduce gender bias at work.

This follows the latest ILO-EFC survey that found company cultures and procedures are biased against women workers.

The garment sector - Sri Lanka's number one export generator - for instance, is more than 80% female but women are concentrated at the lowest rungs of the corporate ladder.

"There are only a very few women in top management positions in the garment industry," said Dr Wijaya Jayatilaka, who co-authored the study.*

One reason for low upward mobility of women in the garment sector is the inflexible nature of both societal and corporate expectations.  Top management jobs in the garment sector are extremely time-consuming but Sri Lankan women can not be 'on call' for work because they must also fulfil traditional obligations as wives and mothers.

As most garment factories do not provide transport for workers, women must also put up with sexual harassment and theft on the roads.

"Sexual harassment of garment workers is also gender-based. Men working in garment factories are not called derogatory names and subjected to harassment on the roads," said Dr Jayatilake.

"Because of the stigma, some girls don't even say they are working at a garment factory. They say they are working somewhere else."

The ILO and EFC hope the manual will help companies implement policies and processes that will reduce gender bias against working women.

* The study- Beyond Glass Ceilings and Brick Walls; Gender at the Workplace - is authored by Ms Maithree Wickramasinghe and Dr Wijaya Jayatilaka and was commissioned by the ILO and the EFC. The study scope extends across Sri Lanka's private sector including the garment industry.

By Dilshani Samaraweera.