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With people the world over celebrating International Women’s Day, a collective understanding is beginning to emerge with regard to the tremendous and essential contributions made by women and girls in every aspect of life. One of the key priorities in promoting equal rights and opportunities regardless of gender, is in the space of management.
Among the many sectors which women tend to play such a critical role, is in agriculture and plantations, however, typically, even here, they have often been confined to field operations, not management. However, even in this traditionally male-dominated industry, progress is happening, thanks in particular to the efforts of domestic Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) like Finlays Tea Estates Sri Lanka (Pvt) Ltd.
Choosing to challenge stereotypes on women in plantations, the Company has set itself the goal of achieving 30% in management positions by 2025. To that end, Finlays commenced actively recruiting women into these critical roles and already, these efforts have yielded tremendous results, as seen in the remarkable stories of two young female Assistant Superintendents at the company – Piriyanthi Makeswaranthan and Navoda Vijayagani.
Born and raised in the relatively conservative society of Jaffna, from a young age, Piriyanthi always sought to challenge herself and never backed away from a task, especially if it was one which ‘tradition’ dictated should only be taken up by men.
Growing up, she would play every sport that her brother and other boys from her neighborhood were engaged in. Eventually this attitude led her to train in in Taekwondo, and even win a bronze medal at the Inter-University championships. Thereafter, she attended group classes on boxing, and trained herself without any formal coaching to compete in the sport as well, and became one of a handful of women to represent the Northern Province in the sport, and even win another bronze medal at a national tournament in 2017.
“I’ve always wanted to only take up activities that challenged me, and required me to think quickly and multi-task. I think this attitude itself came from my family, who always encouraged me and taught me to always believe that there is no limit on what a woman can do. My sports background helped me to really hone this confidence in myself and my abilities,” Piriyanthi explains.
Graduating with a degree in Agricultural Technology from the University of Peradeniya, Piriyanthi was surprised to see that Finlays had posted up adverts at her University for management trainees in plantations, and specifically requested women to sign up. Even though previously she had never envisioned a future in plantations, when she saw the listing, she felt the calling to apply.
“While I was in University I became fascinated with the potential of agriculture as a business given the most technological advancements we had seen in recent years, but in practice it definitely took me some time to adjust to the culture, processes, and the kind of work that is required at a management level on a tea estate. But it was exactly because it was difficult and challenging, and the kind of work that people don’t associate with women, that I wanted to prove - to myself, and to other women - that we are perfectly capable of succeeding in any business, and that we can work just as well as a man,” she asserts.
After receiving 6 months of preliminary training at Newburgh Estate under the guidance of Finlays Estate Superintendent Richard Ohlmus, Piriyanthi quickly learned the ropes before being granted her first appointment as Assistant Superintendent at Waldemar Estate, where she has now been working for over a year.
Riding a motorbike to work every day, she has proven to be an effective leader of a team of 306 male and female workers. She works the same hours, navigates the same terrain, and has equal responsibilities as her male counterparts, and already she has proven to be tremendously successful in all aspects of her work.
“I want to keep climbing up the ladder in my career I want to prove that women can work in estate management as equal to men. While I want to have my own family one day, I do not see this or anything else about my gender as being a limitation in any way to my professional aspirations. We were appointed by our company because they believed in us and because they understand that it does not matter at all if you are a man or woman. If you are determined, and you put your best effort in, you can always succeed.”
“It’s unfortunate that even today, many in our society think of having a daughter as being a burden. But I am lucky that my parents and my family never sought to impose that kind of thinking on me. I was always encouraged to compete, and so I never felt limited by virtue of being a woman. While I will continue to pursue a career in plantations management, I hope that my example will also inspire other women to enter this field, or any other field which they had been conditioned into believing was closed off to them,” Piriyanthi states.
She also expressed gratitude to the management of Finlays Tea Estates, and to her immediate Manager, Asela Ratnayake for understanding and valuing the potential contributions that women like herself can make in the professional sphere.
Navoda Vijayangani, an Assistant Superintendent of Finlays’ Alnwick Estate too did not see herself working in the estate sector and entered the industry by accident, having fallen in love with the up-country hills during her training as a university student.
“I come from a small town in Dehiattakandiya which is very different to where I work now. Growing up my parents always encouraged me to empower myself through education. As I was entering University, I imagined that I would like to use my knowledge to help develop the tea sector, but even then I never imagined I would work in a parallel field, and not a managerial level on an estate,”
During her time as a student at University of Uwa-Wellessa she studied Tea Technology and Value Addition, before going on to complete a Post-Graduate diploma in Agriculture at the University of Peradeniya. Thereafter she joined the field of Tea Research, and while completing her training there, she had a chance conversation with her Manager, where she inquired into the kinds of work available to someone of her qualifications.
It was then that she too learned of the female recruitment initiative launched by Finlays, and soon after, was accepted into the company’s Management Trainee programme.
“A big part of why I was so interested in tea is because I love the upcountry environment and the climate. I also always found the science behind commercial tea cultivation to be fascinating. When I found out about Finlays looking for recruits, I didn’t even know what the position was going to be, I just knew that I wanted the opportunity of working directly in the sector. I also knew that it was a field in which women traditionally do not enter, and I felt like I could be one of the first to challenge that perception,” Navoda explained.
Today, she is the very first female Assistant Superintendent to be posted to Alnwick Estate where she manages a team of 130 individuals. While this role has come with its fair share of challenges, Navoda stated that she has grown to relish the complexity of her work just as much as she did her theoretical studies.
“Being part of the management means that we are often called upon to resolve issues between people, not just focus on agriculture. This has been one of the most valuable experiences in my professional development. We are required to be confident, and decisive in all of our actions, and in doing this, I have learned a great deal more about myself, and how much I am truly capable of,” she said.
Moving forward, Navoda aims to not only continue to rise up in her career, but also apply specialized knowledge of agriculture and science towards the implementation of the latest sustainable agricultural best practices, particularly with regards to soil management and crop health.
“I feel fortunate that I have been able to find a career path that challenges me, but where my contributions and knowledge are valued and appreciated. My passion for agriculture is what led me to where I am today, as well as the decision of my company to recognize that women can make extremely important contributions to this industry. I hope that my story can help to raise awareness of this fact, and one day inspire more women to fully pursue their dreams,” Navoda stated.
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