Asia marked International Women’s Day on Saturday with little to celebrate. Despite mooted reforms, the region’s slow progress has been estimated to cost up to $50 billion a year in lost economic opportunities alone, in addition to huge social costs.
In an article marking the event, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim pointed to “shocking inequalities” remaining in education, the labor market and security, particularly in South Asia.
“While wealthier girls in countries like India and Pakistan may be enrolled in school right alongside boys their age, among the poorest 20 percent of children, girls have on average five years less education than do boys,” he said.
Kim said increasing female employment and entrepreneurship to male levels could improve average incomes by 19 percent in South Asia alone.
A 2013 study by the World Bank of 143 economies found that 128 had at least one legal difference in the treatment of men and women, including laws that prevent women owning property, accessing credit or gaining employment.
“There is clear evidence that when societies enact laws that prevent productive people from fully participating in the workforce, economies suffer,” Kim said, pointing to a study that showed women’s low economic participation created income losses of 27 percent in the Middle East and North Africa.
Kim also called for greater action on domestic violence, saying it could no longer be considered a “private matter” but instead required a public response.
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has included gender equality among its top five key change drivers for its Strategy 2020, stating that “without harnessing the talents, human capital and economic potential of women, Asia’s goals of poverty reduction and sustainable development will not be met.”
According to the ADB, narrowing gender gaps in employment, such as by making greater investments in female education, could increase per capita income in emerging markets by up to 14 percent by 2020, and as much as 20 percent higher by 2030.
Philippines Leads Developed Rivals
In its latest report, the World Economic Forum (WEF) noted improved global performance in narrowing the gender gap, but few Asian countries ranked highly.
WEF’s Global Gender Gap Report 2013 ranked the Scandinavian nations top, led by Iceland. Asia’s best performer was the fifth-ranked Philippines, “the only country in Asia and the Pacific that has fully closed the gender gap in both education and health,” followed by New Zealand (seventh) and Australia (24th), with Mongolia in 33rd place and Sri Lanka 55th.
Despite Mao Zedong’s famous saying that “women hold up half the sky,” China ranked 69th, below Singapore (58th), Laos (60th) and Thailand (65th).
Proving economic size bears no relation to equality, Japan and South Korea scored extremely poorly in 105th and 111th place, respectively, below Indonesia (95th), India (101st) and Malaysia (102nd). Pakistan (135th) and Yemen (136th) rated worst among the 136 nations surveyed.
The report noted a correlation between competitiveness, income and development and gender gaps, pointing to the potentially massive economic gains on offer.
“A study has shown that closing the gap between male and female employment would boost Japanese GDP by as much as 16 percent,” the report said, adding that restricted job opportunities for women was costing the Asia-Pacific region up to $46 billion a year.
The report said in countries such as India and Pakistan, greater investment in girls’ education would have “significant multiplier effects” in improving women’s labor force participation, as well as lowering child mortality rates.
For aging Asia, including Japan, South Korea and China, the report said female employment and fertility tended to be higher in countries where “it is relatively easy for women to combine work with having children”.
Glass Ceiling Intact
Despite widely-publicized moves such as Japanese brokerage Nomura’s appointment of its first female banking boss, Asia’s glass ceiling remains intact.
According to Korn/Ferry International’s 2013 survey of 100 listed companies around the region, female directors accounted for fewer than 10 percent of company board members, with more than half of the boards surveyed in India, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea having none at all.
The figure compares to a 2011 survey by McKinsey & Co, which found that women occupied only 6 percent of board seats in Asia compared to 17 percent in Europe and 15 percent in the United States.
The Korn/Ferry study found only Australia had shown improvement, with nearly 17 percent of directors female, while South Korea had the lowest percentage. Fewer than 10 percent of board chairs or chief executives region-wide were female, with none of the Japanese companies having a female chairperson or CEO.
Pointing to the potential benefits to corporate performance from having one or more female board members, the report said: “The lack of women on Asia’s boards should sound an alarm bell for corporate leaders…Having the best talent available and improving diversity across all aspects is the foundation to building a truly high-performing board.”
The disparity exists despite the fact that half of Asia’s university graduates are women. In Japan, the female employment rate of 60 percent is well below the 80 percent rate for men, with a Goldman Sachs study, “Womenomics” showing the potential for an extra 8 million workers if equilibrium is achieved.
Reforms are in the pipeline, however. Malaysia has announced plans to ensure women hold at least 30 percent of decision-making positions in the corporate sector, while Hong Kong, India and Singapore have also made regulatory moves toward diversity. Australia is launching new gender reporting standards, while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has targeted women filling 30 percent of senior positions in all parts of society by 2020.
Nevertheless, Asia’s governments need to match rhetoric with action, given the low number of female lawmakers. Japan ranked a lowly 127th in the latest global ranking of women in national parliaments compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, with China placed 61st and South Korea 91st, despite the latter’s female president.
McKinsey’s report called for action by government and business, including internal targets for female promotion, development programs and support mechanisms such as childcare.
From gang rapes in India to stalkers in Japan, the social costs remain high along with the economic opportunity cost. For Asia, “investing in women is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do,” as noted by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.