Choose to challenge: Meet the stereotype shattering women of Airtel Lanka

Sri Lanka currently ranks 126th out of 153 countries in terms of economic participation and
opportunities for women in the workforce, according to the World Economic Forum. 1
In recent years, overall female labour force participation actually regressed from 41% down to 36%,
while female representation within science-based professions has recorded an equivalent reduction –
particularly in fields of engineering and technology.
In an evolving economy these disparities actually represent a severe limitation on the potential for
economic growth in Sri Lanka. This disparity is made even more serious given that women account
for over 51% of Sri Lanka’s population but their current underrepresentation in technology means
they will likely be among the groups most vulnerable to job losses as a result of the ongoing fourth
industrial revolution (4IR).
However, according to the University Grants Commission (UGC), in 2017 alone, females accounted
for 49% of the undergraduates enrolled to pursue an education in STEM, and over 40% of those who
finally graduated from university.
Therefore, relatively speaking, the key challenge that Sri Lanka faces is not simply a lack of access to
STEM education for women, but also the fact that women who are qualified, do not enter the
workforce, or if they do, it is does not translate into a stable long-term career path in most
Airtel, a global telecommunication services provider and one of Sri Lanka’s most sought after
employers has been working across the board to enhance female participation within the telco in
order to hone in on this massive reserve of untapped talent. Recognised as one of the ‘Top 10 Best
Workplaces for Women’ in 2019 by Great Place to Work and with over 63% of the female
workforce in managerial positions, Airtel has been driving home the advantages of providing an equal
platform for employees to work, train and benefit from all of the telco’s core working areas.

Women taking the lead from the top
Having been part of the telco’s operations for over a decade, Airtel Lanka’s Chief Service Officer,
Saumya Narain manages teams that work on design innovation, process automation and digital
transformation. Saumya’s initial move to Airtel India in 2003 was a bold decision for her, given that
she was switching verticals from banking to telecommunications.
“I studied commerce and came from a risk management background. So when I began my journey at
Airtel, I had to restart my career ladder. Currently as CSO, I am responsible for ensuring that the
entire customer lifecycle is designed and deployed effectively, and synchronized with back-end
systems. This meant that I had to get to a grip on the rapidly evolving concepts of IT and telco-
engineering, which was certainly intimidating at first. One of the main challenges was getting rid of
the mental limitation that IT and tech was beyond my scope.”

In the years that followed, Saumya began to actively pursue every opportunity to deepen her
technical understanding – attending online courses, seminars and webinars, and learning directly
from Airtel’s own technical teams.
“This is where the beauty of Airtel really shines through. We had several mentors and leaders –
including highly driven and successful women who encouraged us to set aside limitations we had
internalised, and influenced me and many other female colleagues to rise through the ranks.
“The future is undoubtedly digital, and there is plenty of room for women to succeed in the
telecommunications sphere. The only barrier to entry is knowledge, and with enough commitment,
this is not a barrier at all. Especially with a company like Airtel that gives women the room and
support they need to succeed both personally and professionally, I think the future for women in
tech and design is bright,” she stated.

Breaking the gender barrier by centring woman

“To be one of the few women working in this field was not easy and there were times when I
wanted to quit, but I always persevered. My older brother is also in this field and he gave me a lot of
encouragement and advice, and eventually those who had tried to discourage me had to come to the
understanding that this has always been my passion, and that nothing would stop me from
succeeding,” she explained.
Despite her qualifications with a B.Sc. in Computer Engineering from the University of Peradeniya
and Cisco certification in Networking, Chamila noted that it took over a year before she could find a
job that she was passionate about. Now, having completed her years with Airtel Lanka, Chamila is
the primary caregiver and breadwinner for her family, in addition to pursuing her MBA at the
Postgraduate Institute of Management.

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