Asia’s so-called “rice paper ceiling” on female advancement remains firmly in place, despite efforts to bridge the gap. With International Women’s Day putting the spotlight on gender differences, how much longer before the region achieves equality?
The statistics remain damning for a region that has traditionally put a low priority on gender equality. According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), women in Asia are on average 70 percent less likely than men to be in the labor force, despite steady economic growth, increased access to education, and the desire of most working-age women to gain employment.
The Philippines-based development bank attributes part of the problem to social and cultural norms concerning housework, childcare, and the labor market. For example, in Pakistan, women spend five times more time on housework than men do, while Korean women are significantly more likely than men to leave the labor force when starting a family.
In both Japan and South Korea, women have faced structural barriers to advancement in their companies, while in China, women are required to retire five to 10 years earlier than men. Female legislators, senior officials, and managers in Asian countries are in the minority, despite notable exceptions such as South Korean President Park Geun-hye or Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike.
Similarly, the World Economic Forum’s (WEF’s) “Global Gender Gap Report 2016” revealed a generally poor picture for women in the Asia-Pacific region, with the top rankings dominated by Scandinavian nations. Asia’s top performer, the Philippines, ranked seventh and New Zealand placed ninth, but there was a large gap to the next highest ranked Asian nation, Laos, which placed 43rd.
Proving that high per capita income does not always lead to female advancement, Australia ranked 46th and Singapore 55th, while Japan placed 111th and South Korea 116th. Asia’s biggest economy, China, ranked 99th, while emerging heavyweights India placed 87th and Indonesia 88th. Asia’s worst performer was newly ranked Timor-Leste, which placed 125th.
Overall, East Asia and the Pacific had a gender gap of 31.7 percent, well below the top-ranked regions of Western Europe and North America, although ahead of the Middle East and North Africa.
Economic and Social Benefits
Asia’s lackluster performance on gender equality continues despite the large potential economic and social benefits from closing the gap.
Estimates by the ADB reveal that the removal of gender bias in education, the labor market, and the household in a typical Asian economy would increase per capita income by 30 percent and aggregate income by 6 percent over a generation.
The WEF suggests gender economic parity could add an additional $526 billion to Japan’s economy, with other estimates showing China could see a $2.5 trillion gross domestic product (GDP) gain by 2020, with North America and Oceania gaining an additional $3.1 trillion over the same period.
“As a region, East Asia and the Pacific reportedly loses between $42 billion to $47 billion annually due to women’s limited access to employment opportunities,” WEF said. Another $16 billion to $30 billion is lost annually due to gender gaps in education.
According to the World Bank, investing in girls to allow them to complete education at the same rate as boys would lead to lifetime earnings increases of between 54 percent to 68 percent of GDP, equivalent to an annual rise of around 1.5 percent.
“Increased gender equality in education lowers infant and child mortality rates, lowers maternal mortality rates, increases labor force participation and earnings, and fosters further educational investment in children,” WEF said.
Greater female engagement in politics could also foster “greater credibility in institutions, and heightened democratic outcomes,” it suggests.
According to the International Monetary Fund, increasing women’s labor force participation rates to match men’s would boost GDP by 5 percent in the United States, 9 percent in Japan, 12 percent in the United Arab Emirates and a large 27 percent in India.
In aging Japan, closing the gender gap could deliver an additional 7 million workers and provide a 13 percent boost to GDP – figures that have helped inspire Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “Womenomics” policy.
Asia’s corporate performance could be enhanced with more female decision-makers too. According to the WEF, companies with top quartile representation of women in executive positions outperform those without any women, earning as much as a 47 percent premium on return on equity.
International Women’s Day, March 8, is expected to see a range of profile-raising initiatives, from fun runs in Hong Kong to art and seminar events in Tokyo, but also some more unusual stunts. In Australia’s second-largest city of Melbourne for example, a number of pedestrian traffic lights will switch from male to female figures, a move described by the nonprofit Committee for Melbourne as helping reduce “unconscious bias.”
The ADB suggests various solutions to the gender gap issue, including the presence of female role models, greater awareness of job opportunities, and improved returns from education, along with better access to childcare and parental leave.
In China and Bangladesh, trade and openness have increased competition from foreign firms and made discrimination more costly, improving job opportunities for women. In Indonesia, increases in the minimum wage are seen attracting more women to the labor market, while in South Korea, measures that target women with child-rearing responsibilities are seen more effective at promoting labor market re-entry.
Female-only transportation, such as Tokyo’s pink “women only” railway cars, is also considered to reduce the risk of harassment and improve female participation in both education and the labor force.
In China, enabling safer and more permanent internal migration by keeping family networks intact could increase female attachment to the labor force, “allowing for longer work tenure and for employers to make a correspondingly greater investment in their female workers,” the ADB said.
However, the picture is not all bad for the region, with progress seen in Japan, where its female participation rate reached 66 percent in 2014 – higher than Italy’s – compared with 63 percent in 2010. In Australia, the participation rate has risen from a lowly 43 percent in 1978 to 59 percent in 2017, although still below the 70 percent rate for men.
“Not that long ago, paid work for women was a brief affair indulged until the real work of child-rearing, husband wrangling, and housekeeping began. Working women in Australia were predominantly single and childless,” wrote Jessica Irvine in the Brisbane Times.
“But the times, they are a changing… there has probably never been such a rapid change in mothering between generations as between baby boomer mothers and their daughters.”
According to Irvine: “The most profound economic change of the past half century has not been the rise of China or the decline of manufacturing, as important as they are. It’s the rise of working women.”
For Asia, closing the gender gap has never been more important, particularly for nations with advanced aging societies such as Japan and South Korea that are facing declining labor forces. With the WEF stating that it could take another 170 years to close the global gender gap, the clock is ticking for government and business to move faster on reform.