Threads of Success - Promoting Career Progression for Sri Lankan Women

October 16, 2023
Poornima Madubashini, 23, with her parents. Photo: Savani Jayasooriya Poornima Madubashini, 23, with her parents. Photo: Savani Jayasooriya
The pilot of the Gender Equality and Returns (GEAR) program in Sri Lanka has had transformative results for garment factory workers.
The empowerment of women within GEAR is helping to unlock the potential of the country’s workforce and drive sustainable growth.
Production lines led by GEAR trainee supervisors saw an increase of 4.2 percent in efficiency and 5.4 percent in the quality of production, two months after the program was delivered.

Two years ago, when Poornima Madubashini started her career as a machine operator at a garment factory in Weligama, a coastal town in Southern Sri Lanka, her father was not pleased with her decision. Stigma associated with women working in the apparel industry has always been a concern, in Sri Lanka and globally. But Madubashini's mother was in her favor, encouraging her to pursue her dreams.

Today, the gears have shifted.

Madubashini‘s father is the happiest and proudest at his daughter’s achievements. “When women are determined to achieve something, they always succeed. My daughter is one such woman, and I am proud of her,” he said. At the age 23, Madubashini was recently appointed as a supervisor, managing a production line at the Weligama factory of Vogue Tex.

Sri Lanka’s apparel and textile manufacturing industry is a significant contributor to the country’s economy. With an export revenue of $5.6 billion, the industry contributed 46 percent of the national export revenue in 2022 and provided about 33 percent of all manufacturing jobs – with around 350,000 direct jobs, from which, more than one-third are for women.

Despite the share in total employment and the significant role women play in the industry, female employees often earn less than males and are underrepresented in supervisory and management roles. But this is slowly changing, with a noticeable shift towards promoting gender diversity and inclusion in the industry.

Stepping Into Brighter Horizons

When Madubashini heard about a new training program that can help with career progression, she did not hesitate to apply. Following a successful application, she was selected to be a part of the Gender Equality and Returns (GEAR) program, where after completing the training and on-the-job experience, she was promoted to a supervisor-level position.

GEAR – a joint initiative of IFC and the International Labor Organization (ILO) delivered as part of the Better Work program, and with the support of the European Union – helps female employees in the apparel industry to progress and excel in supervisory and management roles. Besides improving women’s access to better jobs and promoting a more skilled, diverse workforce, the program also contributes to improved operational performance for manufacturers.

Across the globe, IFC works with apparel businesses and brands to increase competitiveness, while also supporting economic growth. IFC’s decade-long partnership with ILO is one example. Since 2007, IFC and ILO, though Better Work, have partnered with more than 100 apparel and footwear brands and retailers, who together represent the majority of the global textile and apparel market. The program works in 13 countries and with over 2,500 apparel and footwear manufacturers to improve their labor standards and advance towards greater gender equality and environmental sustainability.

GEAR is part of this. Besides improving the technical know-how of female employees, GEAR also focuses on shifting mindsets, developing their creative and problem-solving skills, and inspiring them to pursue life and career aspirations. The program also helps factory managers create a more encouraging environment for women by training them on gender biases, helping expand the talent pool for career progression.

GEAR training session at Vogue Tex in Hikkaduwa, Photo Credits: Capture Eye GEAR training session at Vogue Tex in Hikkaduwa. Photo: Capture Eye
“By working with both workers and managers, GEAR promotes systemic and cultural changes, strengthening the ability of factories to retain and develop their workforce, including in moments of crisis,” said Raquel Scarpari, GEAR Program Lead at IFC.

Piloted and expanded in Bangladesh since 2016, GEAR has also been implemented in Vietnam and is currently being piloted in Madagascar, and more recently, in Cambodia. The factories that participate in GEAR Sri Lanka supply to global brands such as Levi’s, Ralph Lauren and PVH – who are IFC’s key partners and are also part of IFC’s Global Trade Supplier Finance (GTSF) program, which accelerates payment to suppliers, providing indirect positive benefits that extend to employees.

GEAR is also available for IFC clients across the manufacturing and agribusiness sectors. A pilot focusing on an IFC agribusiness client is currently being delivered in South Africa.

“When I stepped into the garment industry, I never expected to continue for too long, because I knew it’s not easy for women to go up the ladder. But GEAR changed my perspective. Now my target is to move forward, climb up the ladder and never to stop from here,” said Madubashini. “I think anyone can reach higher if you aspire to do so and with the right will power.”

Sarojini Thusharika Kumari with her colleagues at Hela Apparel Holdings. Photo: Capture Eye Sarojini Thusharika Kumari with her colleagues at Hela Apparel Holdings. Photo: Capture Eye


Joining as a machine operator two decades ago, Sarojini Thusharika Kumari had bigger dreams. After years of working in the production line, in 2021, Kumari became a training instructor where she was tasked with leading the training for new joiners. Then when Hela Apparel Holdings joined the GEAR program in November 2022, she was selected as one of the trainees for the executive level program.

In Sri Lanka, GEAR was delivered to 106 graduates from ten factories representing three companies – Vogue Tex, Hela Apparel Holdings and Orit Apparels, who are also part of the GTSF. Apart from promoting career progression for machine operators to become supervisors, the program in Sri Lanka tested a new module by training supervisors to be promoted to junior management positions. A deep on-the-job coaching module was added, which included individual coaching and team building sessions.

“When we do this job, we encounter all sorts of challenges, specifically on how we control our emotions, how we trust each other, build self-confidence, how to lead a team as well as on time and stress management,” said Sarojini.

Given her experience in operations and employee relations, she was a perfect fit for this one-of-a-kind training that focused on the career advancement of supervisors.

GEAR also enables trainees to learn more from practical settings, said Sandani Sanjana, who started her journey at Orit Apparels at the age of 18. Seven years on, Sanjana is now filling bigger shoes. “I am responsible for an entire line (of production), and with GEAR training, I got a boost of confidence to lead my work. I am happy and I intend to learn more so I can reach greater heights in this industry,” she said.

Sandani Sanjana, 25, at Orit Apparels. Photo: Capture Eye Sandani Sanjana, 25, at Orit Apparels, Photo Credits: Capture Eye


A Promising Future

The results of the program are impressive. Launched in November 2022, within six months GEAR in Sri Lanka had led to 77 percent of the initial cohort being promoted, and over 40 percent average increase in the salary of those trainees who were promoted. The program also saw improvements of approximately 4.2 percent in the efficiency of lines led by GEAR trainee supervisors and of 5.4 percent in the quality of the products delivered by these lines in the second month after the program was completed.

As Sri Lanka goes through an unprecedented macroeconomic crisis, women’s socio-economic empowerment remains more relevant than ever, presenting an opportunity to address deep-seated inequities. “Encouraging women's career advancement not only benefits individual women and companies, but also contributes to the overall economic development of the country and helps to retain skilled female workers who might otherwise seek opportunities overseas. Having an adequately skilled labor force that can adapt to new technologies will be critical for jobs in Sri Lanka’s future. Most importantly, it’s the much-needed panacea for a resilient, robust recovery of the country’s economy,” said Alejandro Alvarez de la Campa, IFC Country Manager for Sri Lanka and Maldives.

GEAR Sri Lanka graduates from Hela Clothing at the graduation ceremony held in Colombo. Photo: Capture Eye GEAR Sri Lanka graduates from Hela Clothing at the graduation ceremony held in Colombo. Photo: Capture Eye

While Sri Lankan women are as – in many cases more – educated than men, only around 1 in 3 women of working age are employed, which is less than half that of men. Some factors include occupational segregation, income inequality, discrimination in employment as well as social and cultural barriers. The country’s female labor force participation has stagnated between 30-35 percent over the last two decades. For the country to move forward and inclusively grow, this needs to change. “Programs like GEAR, that focus on skills development for women, are not just significant in terms of facilitating career development, but also help unlock the full potential of the country’s workforce and drive sustainable economic growth,” said Wagner Albuquerque de Almeida, IFC Director for Global Manufacturing and Agribusiness.

“GEAR program – as part of the Better Work initiative – kicked off at a time of protracted social and economic uncertainty for Sri Lankans, firstly triggered by the pandemic and followed by the economic crisis. Amid the challenges, this program has offered significant inspiration in such a short time. Women in leadership roles also serves as a powerful source of inspiration to other women, encouraging them to pursue higher positions and break restrictive gender barriers and norms,” said Simrin Singh, ILO Director for Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

Madubashini, Kumari and Sanjana all started with humble beginnings. Today, they are stepping into newer and brighter horizons, with better and greater opportunities and a new sense of confidence.