Promoting women’s leadership in Sri Lanka: 2018 ICC Women’s World Twenty20

Promoting women’s leadership in Sri Lanka: 2018 ICC Women’s World Twenty20

A strong work ethic, being a team player and determined. These are three character traits sought by hiring managers. Research reveals that a sports background improves a woman’s corporate leadership potential. An EY study of American women CEOs found that 94% of women in the C-Suite played sports and 52% had played sports at the university level.

Indeed, evidence suggests that participation in sports can help break down gender stereotypes, improve girls’ and women’s self-esteem and contribute to the development of leadership skills.

Sport is an integral part of life in Sri Lanka. Participation in sport at a local, regional, national and international level is a marker of the island’s economic and sociocultural development. Though not considered the island ‘s national sport (in 1991, Sri Lanka officially declared volleyball its national sport), cricket is perhaps the most popular sport and illuminates the passion of Sri Lankan contemporary culture. Yet, while most Sri Lankans will be able to identify numerous players of the men’s national cricket team, few are likely to associate the name Chamari Atapattu with the role of captain of Sri Lanka’s women’s national cricket team.

Atapattu is the first and only Sri Lankan female cricketer who scored a century in an international ODI (doing this three times in a row), and she is also the only female to score a double-century in a women’s premier cricket tournament in Sri Lanka. She holds the record for scoring the most number of ODI centuries and fifties for Sri Lanka in women’s cricket history. At the 2017 Women’s Cricket World Cup, she scored the third-highest individual total in a WODI and the second highest total in any Women’s World Cup match.

A role model for many young girls in Sri Lanka, Atapattu made her debut in 2009 playing against India at the T20 World Cup help in England. She has excelled at this position overcoming personal, financial and medical hardships. When Atapattu gets an opportunity, she participates in outreach programs that introduce girls and young women to the sport. Most of her activities have included travelling to rural communities in both Sri Lanka and Australia.

In many countries, it has been recognised that sports can be a force to amplify women’s voices. When the United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, it noted the important role sports can play in promoting gender equality: “Sport can advocate for gender equality, address constricting gender norms and provide inclusive safe spaces.”

At the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, seven teams participated with a majority of female athletes taking part for the first time: Australia, Bahrain, China, Canada, Puerto Rico, the United States and New Zealand. Overall, women athletes made up 45% of the competitors.

To address the remaining challenges to women’s participation and leadership in sports, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) commissioned the IOC Gender Equality Review Project. Published earlier this year, the initiative proposed that more needed to be done to promote gender equality in sports in five critical areas:

  1. Women’s participation in sports (including as coaches and referees, with adequate equipment and uniforms, safeguarding athletes from harassment and abuse, etc.)
  2. Women’s portrayal in sports (including balanced media coverage of both genders)
  3. Funding of women in sports (including equal pay)
  4. Inclusive and accountable governance structures (including governance leadership development)
  5. Human resource management, monitoring and communications supportive of women in sports (including inclusive organisational cultures and diversity in leadership).

According to the latest IFC research, about 8% of Colombo Stock Exchange-listed company board directors are women. While this compares well with the rest of Asia, more can be done in Sri Lanka – not only by the corporate sector but also in sports. According to a PBS documentary about women in sports leadership: “Sports is so much more than sports. It is about life, connections, gaining confidence, finding a passion, learning how to be a great team mate, learning how to fail and getting up again.”

Atapattu’s goal is to help win the next Women’s World Cup with her team. With the 2018 International Cricket Council (ICC) Women’s World Twenty20 currently underway in the West Indies from 9-24 November, Sri Lanka’s national women’s team – as all eight participating national teams – defy any misperception that women are incapable.

Every time they successfully bowl or bat the ball, they are demonstrating not only physical strength but also strategic thinking – taking a step towards further promoting women’s leadership in the country.

(By Carmen Niethammer – The writer is a women’s sports enthusiast and the Program Manager of the Women in Work Program in Sri Lanka, IFC’s largest country-based gender program, working with private sector companies to close gender gaps while improving business performance.)