Asia’s female leaders are finally beginning to emerge, succeeding at the ballot box despite being restricted in the workforce. With the economic and social costs becoming more obvious, how long can the region continue to ignore its women?
In December, Park Geun-hye’s election as South Korea’s first female president was an historic victory in a traditionally male-dominated society. The country has acted to boost the number of female lawmakers by requiring the same number of male and female candidates for proportional representation in national elections.
Park’s success followed Australia’s election of its first female prime minister in 2010, Julia Gillard, although the nation has had female leaders previously in a number of provincial state parliaments.
Yet across the region, the prospects for female leaders remain bleak, even in the leading economies of China and Japan.
While Mao Zedong might have once declared that “women hold up half the sky,” the absence of female leaders in the Communist Party remains stark. Only two woman were appointed late last year to the 25-member Politburo, with the powerful Politburo Standing Committee remaining a boys’ club.
China’s one child per family policy is also set to produce a massive gender imbalance against women. Already by 2007 the government said the country was home to 34 million more men than women, with the government reportedly saying that a national census showed that, “In 2040 there will be 300 million men and 250 million women under 40. At least 30 million men will have difficulty getting married.”
“China need only look to its own imperial history to see the destabilizing consequences of devaluating daughters,” according to Valerie Hudson, co-author of “Sex and World Peace”.
A similar situation is apparent in India, where the recent gang rape and murder of a New Delhi woman has put the spotlight on its poor record in women’s rights.
In Japan, a recent survey conducted by Tohoku University found only 23 percent expected to see the nation led by a woman in the near future.
December’s elections saw only 38 of the 480 lower house seats won by female candidates, down from the previous 54. Newly elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appointed just two women to his Cabinet, despite pledging in the campaign to raise the proportion of women occupying leadership positions to more than 30 percent by 2020.
Boys club in the boardroom
If Asia’s women are struggling in the world of politics, the situation in corporate life is not much better. According to a 2012 survey by McKinsey & Company, women accounted for an average of only 6 percent of board seats across 10 Asian countries, compared to 17 percent in Europe and 15 percent in the United States.
The survey of 744 firms found women held 8 percent of executive committee seats in Asia, again lower than the 10 percent in Europe and 14 percent in the United States.
“It’s a huge waste of talent, as half of Asian graduates are female. And it is a waste that Asian companies can ill afford, given the severe shortage of senior managers in the region,” said the report, titled “Women Matter”.
Australia, Hong Kong and China topped the field concerning female board members, with women holding an average of 13, 9 and 8 percent of such posts, while South Korea, Japan and India were the worst performers.
The “double burden” of career and family responsibilities along with cultural influences was blamed for the low percentages. The report noted that in Japan, 60 percent of women quit or change jobs after marriage, with poor childcare access and labor market rigidities adding to the difficulties.
“The double burden affects women in Europe, too. But inarguably, it is particularly heavy for Asian women…also because there is a lack of government support in areas such as childcare,” the report said.
According to Goldman Sachs’ Kathy Matsui, closing the gender employment gap in Japan could expand the workforce by 8.2 million and boost gross domestic product by as much as 15 percent.
Research by the nonprofit group Catalyst has shown that companies with three or more female directors in at least four of five years have “significantly outperformed those with no women board directors,” with up to a 26 percent higher return on invested capital.
Yet the World Economic Forum’s 2012 “Global Gender Gap” report found that not all Asian countries are lagging, with New Zealand placing a very respectable 6th and the Philippines at 8th. Still these were the exceptions to the rule, with China ranked 69th, Japan 101st, India 105th and South Korea 108th. In time, Asian leaders may decide that the gap is too expensive not to close.