Asia’s Faltering ‘Womenomics’


“Womenomics” may be the flavor of the year in Japan and elsewhere, but the region has remained among the laggards in the latest global gender gap rankings.

According to the World Economic Forum, progress remains slow in achieving equality for women in the workplace with the world’s gender gap for economic opportunity and participation now at 60 percent, up only 4 percentage points from 2006 when the survey first began.

“Based on this trajectory, with all else remaining equal, it will take 81 years for the world to close this gap completely,” the WEF said in announcing the Global Gender Gap Report 2014, which measures 142 countries on the gap between men and women on health, education, economic and political indicators.

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Nordic nations lead the pack, claiming the top five places, while Asia’s standouts are the Philippines, ranked ninth, followed by New Zealand (13th) and Australia (24th). Yet the picture is darker for the rest of the region, with Mongolia (42nd) the only other placing in the top 50, followed by Singapore, Laos and Thailand, ranked 59th, 60th and 61st, respectively.

China slipped 18 places to 87th, “largely due to its very low sex ratio at birth,” a cultural tradition that has resulted in an estimated 35 million women “missing.” Despite recent government initiatives, Japan gained just one place to 104th, showing the need for more action to achieve an estimated potential GDP gain of nearly 13 percent.

South Korea also scored lowly, ranked 117th despite the pledges of its first female president, Park Geun-hye, to address women’s issues such as childcare.

Indonesia placed 97th and Malaysia 107th, while India dropped to 114th, making it the lowest-ranked BRICS nation and “one of the few countries where female labor force participation is shrinking,” the report said.

Progress over the past nine years of the report has actually worsened in Sri Lanka, currently ranked 79th. At the other end of the scale, Singapore has achieved the largest absolute gains in women’s income, while the Philippines has successfully closed the gap in educational attainment and health.

Among the report’s four subindexes, Mongolia was Asia’s highest ranking nation on economic participation (10th), while Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines all placed first on educational attainment. Cambodia, Fiji, Mongolia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka ranked first on health and survival, while Bangladesh was Asia’s leader in political empowerment, placed 10th.

“Much of the progress on gender equality over the last 10 years has come from more women entering politics and the workforce. While more women and more men have joined the workforce over the last decade, more women than men entered the labor force in 49 countries. And in the case of politics, globally, there are now 26 percent more female parliamentarians and 50 percent more female ministers than nine years ago,” the report’s lead author Saadia Zahidi said.

“These are far-reaching changes – for economies and national cultures, however it is clear that much work still remains to be done, and that the pace of change must in some areas be accelerated.”

Demographic Dividend

Commenting on the report’s findings, ANZ Research said closing the gender gap had the potential to become “a powerful second demographic dividend for Asia.”

“Indeed, for those economies across Asia which have an aging labor force and now appear to have reaped their headline generic dividend, encouraging greater female participation is their ONLY option in boosting potential growth from the labor input side of the equation,” ANZ economist Eugenia Victorino said.

“Progress in narrowing the disparities in labor participation, remuneration, advancement can only provide a boost to aggregate income formation, consumption and savings across the region. Toward this end, ASEAN countries are making headway in the right direction, while the disparity in India seems to be worsening.”

Based on this year’s findings, the world will not achieve full gender equality until 2095, unless the pace of change increases. For Asia though, the worsening demographics of countries including China, Japan and South Korea make it a far more urgent task than the end of the century.

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