What Glass Ceiling? Rohini Nanayakkara’s memoir – A Review

Glass Ceiling – Definition: An invisible upper limit in corporations and other organizations, above which it is difficult or impossible for women to rise in the ranks.

Discrimination exists in many forms. When Michelle Gunawardane asked Rohini Nanayakkara, former Chair of the Bank of Ceylon, whether the ‘story’ she was about to relate to her would be about ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ in the area of corporate management, it was evident that it was ‘negative’ discrimination that Michelle had in mind: that unacknowledged discriminatory barrier which prevents women and minorities from rising to positions of power or responsibility within an organization.

‘Positive’ discrimination is something else altogether, and while there is nothing in the least amusing about negative discrimination (particularly to its unfortunate victim), positive discrimination has an amusing – if slightly cynical! – side. I found myself once on the Selection Board of an Australian university which was debating the appointment of a Professor of Physics. Science has never been my strong suit, and I mentioned (privately, to my neighbour) that I’d really like to know why I’d been invited to serve on this particular Board.

“It’s one of our regulations,” he told me, “that at least one member of a Selection Board should be from a department or faculty quite unconnected with the discipline that is under discussion. You are that member.”

Well, this sounded fair enough – until I looked around me and observed that I was not only the single non-scientist on the Selection Board. I was also the only person present who was neither male nor Australian-born. ‘Positive discrimination’, which had been officially set up to counter racial and gender discrimination in the work-place, had managed to merge four different personae (and four different votes!) into one.

It is most unlikely that Rohini Nanayakkara would have ever encountered racial discrimination in the course of her meteoric rise to the top of the banking ‘tree’: We graduated in the same year (1959) from the University of Ceylon at Peradeniya, and although we did so from different departments, I am positive that she and I have that happy experience in common, of our work in both classroom and examination hall being assessed entirely on its merits and not according to ‘quotas’ based on race or community as happens in some other countries in our region. As for gender discrimination – well, some old-fashioned academics in Sri Lanka did believe in the 1950s that women’s proper place was in their homes, bringing up children, and not in university staff rooms.

I met one such in Australia, a very senior Professor of Mathematics who did not like women, and did not believe any woman capable of understanding or teaching his subject. Hopeful young female candidates for mathematics were discouraged by him, personally, on the telephone. At scholarship meetings that he chaired, which another woman Professor (of History) and I attended on behalf of our students, Professor A. would begin proceedings by looking genially around the table of male academics, and saying:

“Good morning, gentlemen! Shall we begin?” A little of that sort of thing goes a long way. Since it was obvious that confrontation would be useless in his case and that, due to his attitude, our students were likely to suffer, I suggested to the Head of the English Department that he should discreetly take my place on the committee, and tackle Professor A. himself. Which he did, with excellent results for our students.

So, although Rohini Nanayakkara can look back today over her long and successful career, and cheerfully say “What glass ceiling?” we can be certain that gender discrimination must certainly have come her way in the banks at which she worked. It was inevitable that it should, for banking (like engineering) was for a very long time an area of employment that was considered unsuitable for women here and elsewhere.

The term “glass ceiling” as it operates in corporate management was, I understand, first used by two women at Hewlett-Packard in 1979, Katherine Lawrence and Marianne Schreiber, to describe how while on the surface there seemed to be a clear path of promotion, in actuality women seemed to hit a point beyond which they seemed unable to progress. Upon becoming CEO and chairwoman of the board of Hewlett-Packard, Carly Fiorina proclaimed that there was no glass ceiling. (Not unlike Rohini Nanayakkara’s reply to Michelle: “What glass ceiling?”) And yet, after her term at Hewlett-Packard, Ms Fiorina admitted that her earlier statement had been a “dumb thing to say”. The point at issue surely is, not so much whether glass ceilings exist – for they do – but how they are to be circumvented. The story that the book relates is a fascinating one. Here was a young woman totally involved with her happy life within her family, who wouldn’t have gone to University if her elder brother hadn’t paid her fees.

Apparently devoid of either ambition or a plan for the future, she made friends at Peradeniya, enjoyed the University’s social life, graduated ….and then spent ‘a lazy year’ at home with her parents. Pure chance made her spot an ad for which she applied and was successful. Following that almost accidental entry into the field in which she was to make her career – banking – came a journey which, by its smooth and seemingly unbroken progress to the top, takes the reader’s breath away.

How was this achieved? What can young women who wish to emulate her example do to make that possible? Qualities of character emerge in the course of Rohini’s frank and simply told story, which answer some, if not all, of these questions. The first of these, notable from the very start, must surely have been her openness, even as a schoolgirl, to new ideas and new experiences. If, as the saying goes, ‘Knowledge is Power’, the expertise that she has demonstrated at every stage of her rise must have been based on her willingness to listen and learn.

The second, emerging when she was an undergraduate at Hilda Obeysekere Hall, would have been her ability to organize and order her activities. Rohini would not have been the type of student who leaves an essay or examination answer unfinished, and hopes for the best. A third, I should think, would have been courage. Accepting and dealing with the challenges thrown up by corporate life after an adolescence passed quietly at home, takes bravery of a very special kind. When she became aware that her chances of success in applying for a particular appointment were under threat because she was a woman, Rohini had the courage to inquire directly (but quietly) of the Chairman whether gender considerations were likely to affect the outcome. What could he say, but: “Of course not!”

A fourth characteristic that is quite impossible to miss as the tentative, even diffident ex-student finds her feet in a world outside family, school and university, is tenacity. And a fifth, which the other four have helped to develop, must definitely be her ability to get on with people. Among the many colleagues who have helped her advance, Dr. Nimal Sanderatne and Nissanka Wijewardene are two seniors whom Rohini acknowledges with gratitude as her mentors, providing her with the assurance of fair play whenever she was threatened by discrimination.

And finally one might ask: What part did ambition play in this story of success? Many women are conditioned to believe that while ambition is a perfectly acceptable attitude for men to cultivate, the desire to soar, to excel, is dangerously unfeminine, and should therefore be off-limits for women. Many mothers and aunts become restive and nervous when girls develop interest in things other than dress and domesticity: and yet, as many life-stories demonstrate, one thing is certain – nothing can be achieved without ambition.

Rohini Nanayakkara in maturity is an elegant and very charming woman. But all the personal charm in the world cannot, by itself, impress seniors who know very well what they are about. It cannot convince anxious colleagues that they are in the presence of comradeship and not of cut-throat competition. Nor can it placate the unions, ever keen to find some flaw in senior management that calls for revolution! Beneath the gentle, quiet manner that is Rohini’s outward ‘signature’ is absolute reliability, an understanding of corporate affairs that is known by everyone she works with to be soundly based in experience, and a creative ambition to ensure that a client’s interest is always kept in view.

Here is a book that tells a story and teaches valuable lessons. My congratulations to Michelle Gunawardane, who has told it with such sensitivity, and to the publishers, Perera Hussein, who have given it such an attractive presentation.

Reviewed by Yasmine Gooneratne. What Glass Ceiling? The memoirs of Rohini Nanayakkara as told to Michelle Gunawardana. Bay Owl Press, Colombo. 2011. Paperback. 166 pages. Rs. 800

Let us know what you think!