A boss and a lady: Being a female leader in Sri Lanka

By Shailendree Wickrama Adittiya

Commemorated on 8 March, International Women’s Day was held under the theme “Balance for Better” and addressed gender imbalance. There are many factors that hinder a woman’s journey up the corporate ladder and female leaders often face additional hurdles in comparison to men in the corporate sector. In order to fully understand the challenges faced by women when it comes to leadership roles, The Sunday Morning Business spoke to women who currently hold positions of leadership in their respective companies.

Having held positions of leadership from the very beginning of her career, Anusha Gallage is currently the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of Hatton National Bank (HNB). While she joined the Finance Department in 2013, Gallage was appointed Head of the Department in September 2016 and CFO in January 2017. Her career, however, began in 1990, when she joined HNB as a management trainee.

Last year, she won the silver award in the banking and finance category at the WIM IFC “Top 50” Professional and Career Women Awards. Gallage also received the Women Super Achiever Award at the 26th World HRD Congress.

Drawing from her years of experience, Gallage spoke about what it was like to hold a leadership role in the banking sector. She explained that it isn’t easy, even though there are many women in the lower levels; like associates, junior executives, and executives.

“Moving away from those levels and going into corporate management, it is quite rare to see women in leadership roles. At HNB, we have three women out of 18 corporate management members,” she said, adding: “In our bank, I think I’m the first female CFO.”

It may not be an easy task, especially in a field not traditionally open to females, but it is definitely commendable.

The shipping industry is similar to the banking industry in terms of how male dominant it is. Shipping is seen as a sector dominated by men, while traditionally, women were limited to jobs in teaching, nursing, and secretarial work.

However, these perceptions haven’t stopped women from not only working in such industries but also climbing the corporate ladder to occupy positions of leadership.

McLarens Shipping General Manager – Documentations and Traning Anoma Ranasinghe is one such individual.

With 20 years of experience in leadership roles, Anoma Ranasinghe was the silver award winner in the logistics and shipping ports and freight category at the 2018 WIM IFC “Top 50” Professional and Career Women Awards.

She explained that while most men in the industry treat women equally and with respect, some believe there is no use for women in a male-dominated industry like shipping. “But we have proved that women can survive in the industry and become leaders,” Anoma Ranasinghe added.

Sales too, is a traditionally male-dominated field, and a female leader with over 10 years of experience in the industry, who wished to remain anonymous, shared similar views on what it’s like being a female leader in the sector.

“Sales, by default, is a male-dominated area, so almost 99.9% of your team will be male,” she said, adding: “There is always an ego issue in terms of the team and of women leading them. These are the kind of challenges you’ll be facing on a daily basis,” she explained.

Women in leadership roles

This brings focus to what it means to be a woman, especially in a leadership role, in male-dominated industries like banking, shipping, and sales.

While getting there is tough, staying there is tougher. Even in positions of leadership, women face added challenges; the aforementioned stereotypes, for instance.

This leads to the question of male versus female bosses and if gender plays a role in leadership. Are female bosses viewed differently than male bosses or are all leaders viewed in the same light?

In terms of respect, the female leader in the sales industry who shared her views on the topic said that she personally believed respect levels were different for male and female leaders.

“The man in the same position might be getting more respect than a woman, depending on the field. In sales, this is the case,” she said.

She also added: “When it comes to the corporate sector, I personally believe that women always have to prove themselves. A man can do it easily, but a woman will have to do more to prove the same point. This is because, by default, the top management might be thinking they aren’t capable enough.

“It’s always tough for women, but it’s not impossible,” she added.

Also sharing her views on the topic was LSEG Technology Head of Strategic Account Management Vidumini Ranasinghe. She received a gold award in the information technology category at the 2018 WIM IFC “Top 50” Professional and Career Women Awards.

Speaking of a man and a woman in the same leadership position getting different levels of respect, Vidumini Ranasinghe said that there was no such perception at LSEG Technology.

However, from conversations she has had with women outside the company, she said: “I did get the view that in most places there is that differentiation in how you are perceived in your leadership role.”

Speaking with a background in human resource management, Sunshine Holdings Group Head of Human Resources Michelle Senanayake said that she hadn’t personally faced any prejudices from her own team.

Senanayake has over 18 years of experience in a leadership role and was the recipient of the silver award in the HR category at the WIM IFC “Top 50” Professional and Career Women Awards.

“Having worked for almost 25 years, I do know one thing: If I walk into a room and I’m with a man who is in the same grade as me, there are instances where others address him as Sir, and me by my name,” she said, adding: “They feel awkward to say madam or ma’am.

“I come from an environment where I don’t really expect it and it doesn’t really bother me. You have to pick up on such nuances, but if you dwell too much on them, you are never going to make any progress,” she explained.

In order to better understand the perception of female bosses, especially in comparison to male ones, The Sunday Morning Business reached out to 15 individuals from different sectors including media, IT, travel, and finance. All individuals have been employed for at least a year, with some having over 20 years of experience.

Of the 15 individuals, most agreed that there was indeed a difference between male and female bosses. “Female bosses are more emotional and easily swayed plus easier to take advantage of and are less respected,” said one individual from the media industry with 20 years’ experience.

She clarified: “This is through no fault of their own (women). They come in handicapped because they are viewed in a negative light just for being female and have to work hard to command respect; women have to work twice as hard for half as much, sadly.”

Words or phrases used to describe female bosses include supportive, strong mentorship, more attention to detail, emotionally-driven, and empathetic. One male individual, with 6.5 years of experience and a career in recruitment/outsourcing, said: “A female boss had been overly dramatic, controlling, micromanaging, and had a know-it-all attitude.”

While these perceptions were based on their personal experience as well as gender, it is interesting that there is a generalisation of certain personality traits and characteristics – empathetic and supportive – as belonging to a female leader.

Since these were views shared by subordinates, it is important to look at how women in leadership roles described themselves. Gallage said that both she and her department have a no-nonsense attitude. This was built through assertiveness, consultative leadership, and bluntness and straightforwardness when communicating.

Anoma Ranasinghe described herself as very understanding, adding that she’s always there to help anyone who comes to her for advice, whether they were female or male. “I’m very open and very flexible in handling both females and males,” she said.

Striking a balance between the two, Vidumini Ranasinghe said that while she strives for high standards and expects employees to deliver on their commitments, she also comes off as relatively easy-going when necessary.

“The emotional intelligence part of things is perhaps something females have a better advantage in,” she explained.

Adding a human resources management perspective to the conversation, Senanayake said: “Women bring a different aspect of leadership to the table,” she said, explaining that there was something inherently different in male and female leadership.

“As female leaders, we must not lose our femininity. We shouldn’t try to be like a man. As a woman, you are able to understand far more than a man would be patient to understand. That’s a key element of it as well,” she added.

Leadership styles

Thus, there are different leadership styles that can be identified among female leaders, giving rise to the question of whether a distinction based on gender needs to be made. Leadership styles aren’t exactly gender-based, although certain characteristics like empathy and compassion are attributed to women.

It is also important to look at how female leaders in the corporate sector interact with subordinates or team members, and if gender plays a role in this relationship.

Both Anoma Ranasinghe and Vidumini Ranasinghe said that they don’t differentiate between male and female subordinates. However, Vidumini Ranasinghe added: “At the back of your mind you are aware of certain restrictions or limitations that a female will have when doing something, but I feel that in the IT industry, those restrictions are very minimal.”

Anusha Gallage has a different approach when dealing with men versus women. “I believe that women are more emotionally balanced than men, although I don’t know how far men would accept this. Women are more empathetic,” she said, adding: “When you deal with women, you are dealing with a similar person. You value that this person may have the same kind of emotional balance. So it’s easier for you to share things with them when compared to how you would present it to a male.”

When it comes to dealing with men, Gallage is very straightforward and doesn’t let her feminine nature come forward. “Sometimes, men will try to bulldoze you. And many positions are held by men. They mainly focus on taking their career forward rather than a woman who has to play multiple roles in a home too,” she explained.

This doesn’t mean that there is a need for segregation and men-only or women-only teams. Senanayake, having been the only woman in a male-dominated team and also having worked with women-only teams, said that there should be a good mix of the two as both genders have their positives and negatives.

“When working with women, they are very detail-oriented and conscientious, and they really are very productive in that sense. When you work with men, they are very direct and they say what they mean and they mean what they say,” she said. However, Senanayake also explained that when working with women, there were a number of other elements that need to be considered, for instance, late hours and travelling out of Colombo.

Accommodating such factors aren’t concessions, Senanayake said, explaining that they were diverse needs that women have with their dual roles. However, she added: “Similarly, a man has a dual role too, but I think a woman picks up a lot of the slack because the man will mostly look at one aspect, like their career. But I think that now, more men are beginning to understand the dual nature of their role.

“We really need to stop using gender as an excuse,” Senanayake said.

While these approaches are practiced when it comes to in-office interactions, socialising out of office with one’s team may demand a different approach. More and more companies value creating stronger bonds between team members and leaders, especially out of office or outside the professional setting. From day-trips to dinners to various events, there are many ways in which companies encourage such socialising.

Society’s role

This could be a tricky area when it comes to female leaders as society imposes certain restrictions on a woman’s freedom, especially in the night. While Vidumini Ranasinghe said she participates in as many such events as possible, she admitted that it could be an issue culturally or socially.

“Fortunately, I don’t come from such a background that makes it a concern for me, so I have not encountered any issues. And I also see that most of the female juniors are slowly moving towards socialising outside of work without too much trouble. But it depends on their cultural and social background,” she explained.

Senanayake also spoke about how culture and society plays a role in limiting out-of-office bonding, saying:

“The views of the general community don’t help.” She explained: “For example, every time you are out with a man, engaged in business-related conversation, it is always interpreted to mean something else. But if you get affected and bogged down by that perception, I think you’ll be forever stuck.”

However, she added that it had never been a debilitating factor for her because she hadn’t let it. “I could have and I still could, but I don’t want to allow it,” she said.

An interesting observation to be made however is in the choice of words used by both Anusha Gallage and Anoma Ranasinghe when talking about out-of-office socialising. Ranasinghe said it hadn’t been an issue for her as her family supports her and understands, while Gallage said: “I have a very understanding husband, without whom I don’t think I could have gone up the ladder, having a responsible job while having to maintain the family.”
Saying that it was having an understanding spouse and family that allowed them to enjoy such out-of-office socialising events as well as a career is perhaps an indication that regardless of how far up the corporate ladder she is, a woman’s first priority is expected to be her family. This could be considered a barrier to women in the corporate sector, especially when taking on leadership roles.

In fact, Senanayake said: “It’s also about whether your home environment also facilitates that to happen. If you have a very old-fashioned husband, he wouldn’t want you going out like that. It’s a combination of a lot of factors that need to fall into place and you have to manage them well.”


While these factors need to be looked at more closely and in depth, there is also a need to address any misconceptions that could be harmful to a woman’s career in the corporate sector. The individuals reached out to by The Sunday Morning Business had mixed reactions to dealing with a same-sex boss or a boss of the opposite sex.

While some maintained that it made no difference to them, others commented on personality traits that were more apparent in women, like certain leadership qualities and empathy. Some of the female individuals also commented on incidents of sexual harassment when dealing with opposite-sex bosses, yet another area that requires in-depth study.

One final area that must be looked at is misconceptions regarding the corporate sector. The IT industry is seen as requiring long hours that stretch late into the night. Due to this, the type of work and the workload, the industry – like finance, sales, and shipping – is often considered a male-dominant area.

However, Vidumini Ranasinghe suggested that perhaps the idea that a female leader has it tougher in such fields is attributed to their own mindset. “There’s hardly a time when I go into a meeting and think: ‘Oh god, I’m the only female here, would people listen to me?’” she explained.

“One of the key things most of us need to understand is that we need to remove that perception from our minds because that’s where most of the problems or concerns start. If we put that into our own heads, we start taking a step back,” Vidumini Ranasinghe added.

According to her, there are problems; even in the IT industry, with its accommodation facilities, infrastructure, and remote connectivity, but, she said:

“It’s not as big of a problem if you don’t think about it.”

This argument takes a different look at the topic of women in the corporate sector, especially in leadership roles, and while there are differed views on the topic, it is an argument worth considering.

Regardless of how big the hurdles are that women have to overcome to get to positions of leadership in the corporate sector, it is fair to say that differentiation when it comes to leadership should be based on leadership style and presence, as opposed to gender.

After all, in the words of one of the individuals The Sunday Morning Business reached out to: “Management theories are not gender-based.”

Thus, it is perhaps time we recognise that women are as capable as men when it comes to taking on leadership roles and through this admission, make way for gender balance in the corporate sector.