Dushni Weerakoon is the executive director of the Institute of Policy Studies in Sri Lanka. Dr. Annapoorna Ravichander, editor at large for South Asia at On Think Tanks, interviewed Yamini Aiyar as part of the of the series on South Asian Executive Directors.
Annapoorna Ravichander: Could you please tell us a bit about yourself?
Dushni Weerakoon: I spent my school years in Sri Lanka, Nigeria and India. I entered the University of Colombo as an undergraduate student, but left after the first year as Sri Lankan universities were getting caught up in youth unrest in the mid-1980s. I then went to the UK to complete my undergraduate and postgraduate studies in economics. I returned to Sri Lanka in 1994 and took up a research position at the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS), which back then a young research organization.
AR: IPS was established in 1988. What were the motivations for setting it up?
DW: In the mid-1980s, Sri Lanka’s Minister of Finance had conceived the idea of a think tank to support the government’s economic policy formulation. There was a gap to be filled in identifying medium-term development priorities alongside efforts by other agencies such as the Central Bank of Sri Lanka and the Department of National Planning. The government of Sri Lanka enacted an Act of Parliament to establish the IPS as a semi-government institution.
AR: Prior to becoming the executive director what was your role in IPS? What was it about IPS as an organisation that attracted you to it?
DW: I joined the IPS in 1994 as a research fellow. In 2005, I was appointed to the newly created post of deputy director. The primary task was to set and steer the Institute’s research program, including overseeing research staff training and capacity development. I enjoyed that role as it dovetailed what I found most attractive about IPS: a liberal research environment where researchers were encouraged to form their own views, present their work, network, get established, etc. This may not be a challenge for most think tanks but for IPS, as a semi-government institute, fostering an environment of independent thinking has been a trademark of its reputation.
AR: What are the main lessons you have learnt as a woman leading an institution?
DW: To be quite frank, I have never considered my role from a gender perspective. As a specialist in macroeconomics, I got used from the onset to being the ‘odd-one-out’ in a room full of men. This of course doesn’t mean there is gender parity and equal acceptance, especially in Sri Lanka’s corporate sector. My experience is that women most often face a key challenge mid-career, like balancing work-life priorities, and those decisions ultimately have an impact on how far you get and how quickly. The most you can try to do is to encourage women to employ their skills and education and provide as much flexibility as possible within an organization to foster those talents.
AR: What are the main lessons you have learned in your career? Are they critical and essential?
DW: The main lessons I have learnt in my career is that the world of research is changing and the skills and tools that researchers need also change as they progress up the career ladder. Management skills and an understanding of financials are essential today to lead any organisation. I was fortunate to have had the exposure to gain some of those skills serving as an independent non-executive director in the corporate sector in Sri Lanka. Given the importance of human resource management and financial sustainability as prerequisites for think tanks to flourish, the importance of catching up on these skill-sets for researchers who aspire to management roles cannot be understated.
AR: Do you think that think tanks should encourage some clauses in their employment rules like flexible working hours (especially for women), in-house gender sensitisation sessions, and include gender aspects in their vision and mission statements?
DW: I don’t think that a set of guidelines and clauses on employment rules can be uniformly applied to think tanks. Often times there are institution-specific or country-specific factors that need to be borne in mind. Most organisations will evaluate their rules and regulations and adapt to changing circumstances and environments.